Content Strategist as Digital Curator
Issue № 297

The Content Strategist as Digital Curator

The term “curate” is the interactive world’s new buzzword. During content creation and governance discussions, client pitches and creative brainstorms, I’ve watched this word gain traction at almost warp speed.  As a transplant from museums and libraries into interactive media, I can’t help but ask what is it about this word that deserves redefinition for the web?

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Curation has a distinguished history in cultural institutions. In galleries and museums, curators use judgment and a refined sense of style to select and arrange art to create a narrative, evoke a response, and communicate a message. As the digital landscape becomes increasingly complex, and as businesses become ever more comfortable using the web to bring their product and audience closer, the techniques and principles of museum curatorship can inform how we create online experiences—particularly when we approach content.

For a long time, we’ve considered digital objects such as articles, slideshows, and video to be short-lived. But today, more and more sites can be considered institutions that house evergreen assets—they collect, preserve, attend to, and create themed content packages that together, offer a unique perspective.

Consider some examples: NYTimes.com Topics employs content managers who sift through The Times’ archive to create new meaning by grouping articles and resources that were filed away (or distributed to library databases). The site also produces exceptional multimedia pieces akin to “special exhibitions,” which offer a documentary and reflective aspect to news content. The New Museum’s online presence, Rhizome, collects and preserves new media (digital) artworks. Mubi curates independent and classic films. These examples of online curation house a permanent collection of works that is frequently reinterpreted by guest curators.

More commercially, NBC Universal’s video site Hulu takes videos sourced from multiple networks and then rearranges them into collections that give a new perspective to the collection as a whole. On the e-commerce end, shopping sites such as Anthropologie and J.Crew have digitized the medium of the store window display by curating clothing collections while Polyvore invites users to curate their own style collections from a database of brands and celebrities.

Bloggers can also be considered as curators and experts of a particular subject, hand-picking others’ assets around a particular theme or topic and then layering in their own distinct voice. Most recently, we’ve seen the rise of mega-aggregators such as The Daily Beast, Huffington Post, Perez Hilton, and Drudge Report. These are examples of the most targeted and highly curated sets of news and current events out there. Each is backed by a refined point of view on the news that is worth the most attention (and what is worth linking to)—all based on highly branded perspectives and voices.

How does a content strategist act as a digital curator?#section1

When a site launches, your audience arrives to learn more about what you know most about. It’s critical to create a content experience with purpose, that is consistent and contextual. This helps to assert your brand’s authority, establishes relationships with your audience, and secures a return visit based on your content’s value. The content strategist-as-curator is the one who makes this happen. How?

Exhibit your collection’s greatest assets#section2

Just as curators produce thoughtful exhibitions that juxtapose pieces of work against one another to create meaning and spur excitement, content strategists must approach a business’s content as a medium that needs to be strategically selected and placed to engage the audience, convey a message, and inspire action.

During a rebuild or development of a new site, content strategy engagement is site-level and long-term. First, the content strategist assesses, analyzes, and recommends high-level steps to create more cohesive content. In practice, this means many working sessions with business owners to define big picture objectives, the mission, and editorial program for the site based on the initial content assessment. Once the site goals are understood from a business and user point of view, the content strategist-as-curator works to reframe the collection by creating an overarching strategy that defines how content be should be organized, positioned, and made relevant (think: exhibition rooms in a museum or gallery).  We then look at the spectrum of what is available and desired for publication, identify what is premium (the most unique among competitors, desirable to users, and drives high traffic) and work with the business to agree on site-wide topical areas of strength, focus and breadth.

At the page-level, web editors are increasingly being asked to take on responsibilities akin to the museum curator by managing and representing the intellectual property and integrity of the collection on a day-to-day basis.  As if hanging art, the editor-as-digital-curator thoughtfully examines how to strengthen primary content (editorial features) by positioning it with related content elements to support a thesis. But it’s not just that simple. Unlike physical gallery space, the web is a far less constrained space which offers access to multiple dimensions of content at once. Whether the content is timely (headlines and new content) or timeless (evergreen = archival content that maintains relevance by retaining encyclopaedic qualities), online curation is about selectively and effectively balancing these space-time factors to create context in order for the site to feel alive, relevant, and worth returning to. That said, juxtaposing timely and timeless content is something that few sites do well—but with this digital curation frontier, there are essentially open skies for exploring this potential in page design and how related content is served up to users.

What’s the payoff? #section3

One of the best parts of knowing your collection intimately is a bigger return on investment. Creating content packages and groupings that use archived content is both a cost-effective and meaningful way to creatively use the content you already own—and bring it back into the moment. Partnerships or third-party vendors are excellent for increasing the breadth of content you provide to your users, but beware that mass quantity does not equal quality and may not support your brand or its tone of voice. Curating your “permanent collection” enables you to frame your best assets, emphasize your unique voice, communicate a refined sensibility to your audience, and breathe new life and significance into content that may otherwise be lost in the mass. In regard to choosing topic ownership areas wisely, identifying premium content areas is crucial for getting more eyes on your site. By allocating the majority of your resourcing efforts on the content you can “own” in the marketplace, you’ll create more authoritative and focused content that will result in higher traffic and will ultimately be more sellable—which is a return on investment any way you look at it.

Manage and maintain your collection responsibly#section4

“Responsible maintenance” is an important principle of good curatorship. This is where a content strategist creates structure using taxonomies and other classification schemes, relationships (ontologies), and works with standards (SEO, semantic web, effective metadata) so content can easily be cross-linked and dynamically served within the site as well as more effectively integrated in cases of syndication.

As content curation formalizes, we’ll see an increasing division of roles similar to the way in which physical objects are managed and preserved. For example, in museums, registrars are responsible for the metadata around physical objects. Conservators are responsible for the care and upkeep of the physical objects, while curators are responsible for selling the collection to users.

In the digital environment, the content-strategist-as-curator sets up the parameters and strategy on how to manage individual content for the long-term. They ensure the strategy is executed and guarantee that standards are met. They must also create an effective metadata structure—this helps find that perfect asset in the CMS day-to-day, to audit content for quality control, and can help when migrating to a new platform or when sharing content with a partner. A metadata structure makes mapping and moving assets cleaner and more efficient. Using accurate, standardized descriptions for your content also makes your collection easier for users to find online—so it’s a double bonus.

Because responsible collection management requires time, resources, and money, it’s tempting to eliminate it when it comes time to trim the budget. In reality, it puts you in a position to create a smarter, more targeted, focused, and more efficient content program. By extension, this helps to differentiate your company in the marketplace and help you make more money.

Use analytics to drive content production#section5

Analytics help you to manage your collection responsibly, so you know where to expand. Museums, arming security guards with hand counters, have tracked traffic through galleries for years. Thankfully, the digital world offers more sophisticated tools to measure traffic, although the concept is the same: If you want to entice more visitors with special exhibitions, you must examine traffic patterns to find trends on which objects or topics users find most interesting, so that they will stay longer and consume more. Using analytics to optimize your content is a proactive approach to content production which allows you to allocate resources and budget in the most effective areas.

Additionally, analytics map how visitors move through content, identifying areas of interest that speak the most to them—they are a curator’s greatest weapon in determining what should be created, what should remain on display, and what should rotate into storage or retirement. Effective tracking sheds light on:

  • where your users come from (searching within the site or via search engines),
  • how and how often they share your content with others,
  • how your content is being digested (time spent),
  • what causes people to leave (bounce rates),
  • what the most popular topics are and how to optimize your content to meet these demands (keyword and phrase tracking), and
  • movement between related materials.

In practice, content-strategists-as-curators can use analytics to back up their topic ownership strategies with hard data. In plain language, what this really means is to ensure that you create new content that users want. There is a bigger return on investment when you focus your editorial efforts on where the traffic is. Track keyword behavior in search engines and your own internal traffic to anticipate what users will type into search engines. Find semantic links between keywords so you can pursue clusters of synonyms and sync these semantics in your taxonomy.

Post-production, set up your analytics software tags strategically so you can justify content and topic directions or make editorial adjustments to effectively capture traffic going forward.

While analytics help expose and forecast behavior on a site, they don’t show exactly how much your audience enjoys and connects emotionally with your content. For this reason, a larger reconnaissance effort that balances traffic data (behavior) with qualitative user feedback is critical to understand how what you create truly hits home.

Establish a relationship with your audience#section6

One major difference between gallery and digital curators is the integrated and exposed community. For example, in museums there is a large divide between the general audience and expert researchers. Online this is not always the case, permitting the digital curator to harvest this additional content, spotlight it, and create a dialogue with users.

In this way, the content-strategist-as-curator is the invaluable human presence. They play the role of the guide (docent) by proposing topics for discussion. They set expectations and tone and then steer the conversation when it becomes stale or off-track.  Of course, this can’t be done without an intimate relationship with the collection and community. This is why the content strategist often becomes a subject-matter expert who can effectively define and manage the rules of play and then stimulate conversation, communicate insights, and extend general knowledge to build trusting relationships. As a bonus, when it’s time to move to a new platform, make interaction changes, or expand into social media such as Twitter, YouTube, or Facebook, the digital curator will play a critical role in adapting editorial calendars to include social media channels as well as in selling the new space to users. They will also call on community leaders to advocate and socialize these delicate transitions.

Beyond the human connection, the content strategist has a few additional responsibilities in curating communities and user-generated material:

Brand the community’s membership#section7

In the museum world, membership to the hip New Museum says something completely different than the more academic Metropolitan Museum of Art. Likewise, the badge of honor in online communities is central to user identity. The digital curator creates and sustains the vibe and desire for belonging. Content-strategists-as-curators:

  • define a mission and attributes for what it means to be a member of your community,
  • outline goals for getting people to participate, contribute, and become conversation drivers,
  • identify, appoint status, and give responsibilities to community leaders and contributors,
  • work with editors to produce programming (events, features, rewards) to create dedicated fans, and
  • define metrics, and track behavior and interests to gauge loyalty and affinity and then use these findings to inform how the community program will evolve to suit needs and interests.

Establish standards for featuring and integrating user-generated material#section8

In striking a balance between timely and evergreen content, the content-strategist-as-curator must balance user-generated content with editorial content. This means balancing the great work writers, art directors, and editors produce with the best user-generated content and activity—the “best” means the content that’s most useful and supports your thesis and brand. They must figure out who key contributors are so they can support and even influence the direction of editorial programming. Striking a balance also means devising (and abiding by) standards for how your site manages user-generated material long-term. Finally, it means working with designers to build templates that best merge user-generated content into editorial feature areas according to your standards.

Structure conversation around the taxonomy#section9

As a digital curator, you’ve worked hard on your taxonomy to establish topical ownership areas. Now that user-generated content is added to the mix, the contributions your users add to your site should map to the topic areas you own. Why? Creating structure for conversation and contribution eliminates siloed and off-topic dialogue. A solid structure allows you to add a relationship engine that introduces related topics to like-minded users to stimulate conversation. And when users inevitably explore new topics, the content strategist must consider these new topic avenues for editorial content and structure them into the site’s topic areas.

Position users as publishers in the workflow#section10

Who doesn’t want better user-generated images and video or educated users who use the right keywords to maximize visibility in search engines when they post? Think of your users as “free” freelancers who provide and catalogue unique content on a minute-by-minute basis. This gives you better content that you can repurpose editorially or feature with minimal reworking. Be sure to position these contributors to succeed. Theoretically, users entering content are the farthest removed source of CMS input. You must train them on how to enter data into your system. After you determine the metadata requirements that make publishing user-generated content fast, easy, and efficient during interface design, content strategists must create best practices to encourage users to input data accurately. Such guidelines should include how to resize/retouch images, how to best tag posts according to the site’s structure, a mini style guide, or even basic search engine optimization practices.

As a tributary that feeds the larger editorial stream, user-generated content still needs to be checked, edited, and managed differently than editorial content. Let’s say you curate a collection of user-generated recipes. Although you may not be able to fact-check every measurement in the recipe, you will want to be able to control how other users find a given recipe. To maintain this quality assurance, it will be important to have editorial override to catch inaccuracies in tagging and to optimize page titles, for example.

User-generated content is not exactly perfect—but there is a payoff. For the digital curator, well structured user-generated content upfront means reaping material that meets metadata and quality standards. This means you can spend time and money on producing thoughtful curatorial packages that use user-generated content rather than spending time finding, reworking, and retro-tagging so others can find it.

Of course, many have built entire platforms on this model. At Spin Magazine’s Spin Earth, managing editors review and approve select submissions from worldwide contributors—dedicated music fans who are willing to cover local events—and elevate them to correspondent status if they meet publishing criteria. This model blends citizen journalism with the ground-up user contribution we have seen in sites like Yelp, eHow and Instructables. Success of these sites depends on the communication of guidelines and expectations for content production that helps to increase the quality and (in some cases) elevate and position the best as model contributors.

Content planning never stops with launch. Careful curation and attention to the moving parts and archived holdings is the only way to gain control over your collection. Know what your premium assets are (to tell a great story, monetize, and/or syndicate) to create a holistic, sensible, and extensible content program that successfully connects with your audience.

About the Author

Erin Scime

Erin Scime is Senior Content Strategist at HUGE in Brooklyn. She comes to Content Strategy via a mix of art history, curatorial and library work. Her blog is dopeData.

15 Reader Comments

  1. Really great article. Proper content strategy gets forgotten or downplayed so easily in the mix of everything else …mostly because it is not realized by most how the content (and all aspects of that content & its relation to other content) is the lifeblood of the site itself.

    Love the curator/ museum analogy. Thoroughly enjoyed the article. Thanks for writing it.

  2. The notion of content-strategist-as-curator, as a distinct discipline, strikes me as a merger of UX (or perhaps simply design and Web creative development) and IA. We could spilt hairs over roles and responsibilities until we’re blue in the face. Like with everything in our field disciplines are constantly evolving driven by, among other things, technology. Nevertheless the word ‘curator’ implies one is concerned with both visual presentation and content structure if you think of the museum exhibit analogy.

    One could argue designers and creatives become the ultimate curators “responsible for selling the collection to users” because a site lacking design integrity or a cohesive visual aesthetic will fail to be sold on the user experience front.

  3. Erin, this is phenomenal! Thank you for sharing your perspective around curating—it’s more than just an accurate metaphor, as we see how so much of the thinking, skills, and issues translate from museum exhibits to web experiences.

    You really drive home the point that in order to effectively display your content, you first need to know what you have. Yay, qualitative and quantitative content audits! We’ve all seen shiny new sites that just blindly siphon in the old content, sucking it in without ensuring it’s current, relevant, and brand appropriate. Perhaps it’s just as bad when a client cranks open the faucet for More Content!, and their only goals are More and New. How do they know what they need and what it should do if they don’t know what they have and if it’s working?

    Moving from audit mode to curation, it strikes me that when articles, news, and information are the main wares of a site, the content strategist can adopt the practices of a merchandiser as well. Retail merchandising brings together products to make new meaning through context. Put all the red items together in a window display, and voila! It’s time to shop for Valentine’s Day! Mix together pens, folders, and lunch sacks, and look! It’s time to go back to school! As content strategists, we may more easily communicate ROI for “merchandising” content, especially for retail clients that are starting to complement product selection with rich editorial.

  4. Congratulations on wrangling this gigantic topic into something so coherent and deeply considered. This article should be distributed at every conference as a pamphlet.

    (Elephant illustration made me laugh for like 10 minutes.)

  5. Once again, amazing content on ALA. Each paragraph in this article would be a worthy discussion in itself, so it’s hard to respond in a comment, other than saying ‘Great job’.

  6. Erin, I loved the article. What a unique blend of the museum/library view on curation with web strategy.

    Do you by any chance ever speak on this topic at conferences?

  7. Wow, this article was SO much more thorough and useful than most anything I’ve read about site strategy, in weeks. I think the analogy is perfect and also underscores the potential for subject matter experts to rise to the fore if they have the tenacity to curate their knowledge via the web. One of the things I would add is that I truly believe none of this can be “faked.” In that sense, I have a bit of difficulty with the notion that you create content for “where the audience is going.” For a site that is mission-driven, you gotta stick to it our your audience will sniff you out. I could go on an on, too. Thanks for the post.

  8. Like Darryl, I see overlap with your “curator” analogy and the responsibilities of user experience designers and information architects. The difference, I think, is that while UX designers and IAs create interaction models at the outset, a content curator engages users in dialogical manner by listening to their interests and needs and responding accordingly, by using “judgment and a refined sense of style to select and arrange [content] to create a narrative,” or by restructuring interaction models. Of course, if the UX designers and IAs were forward thinking enough, the content curator can spend time considering content relationships rather than remodeling interaction.

    Erin, the “curator” analogy is an excellent one and creates space for much needed subject matter experts as Web content begins to mature and evergreen institutions proliferate. Thanks for an enjoyable read.

  9. Thank you for the thought-provoking article, Erin. Understanding web content as being worthy of deliberate curation (audit, planning, strategy and GOSH – even maintenance) is important.

    I do agree with Darryl but I’d suggest the content users, or consumers, if you prefer, are the ultimate curators. In designing and enhancing UX we are now combining data from research samples as well as ever-increasing real results from real users.

  10. Very impressive! I’d call myself a life-long learner, especially when it comes to my love of anything web. Well, I’d say I learned something new today! What a great way to both think and explain the whole concept behind content creation, structure, and layout! As I read this article I started to think about my own web site and how I needed to improve it to make it more structured like walking through my own little museum. (Right now, you might get lost and be looking for some kind of sign to tell you where to go next… )

    Thanks for making me think straight and giving me a new tool to help explain it to my clients!

  11. Wow, what a well-written piece on content management. Makes me proud to be in this business. Thank you for adding the section about Analytics. This is an under used tool. Editors and writers should look under the hood and see what’s happening on their site. That will help them create better content.

    Looking forward to your next article.

    –Buddy

  12. This article is a tremendous reminder to me and my web team that online content really is a valuable resource. It is so easy to get bogged down in churning out information for a website, but when you look at what is being developed as artifacts that will live on forever – or at least a long time – it makes you pause a bit and take some extra care in its development.

    There is a major shortage of e-content coming out of the Middle East (where I work), but the key for us is not just throwing content out there, it is creating quality content that will add value. I would love to talk to more people about how to go about encouraging this region to develop strong online content – and then display in their online exhibits!

  13. I especially like the fact that you included the key role of the analyst.
    I would like to add that content should always be tested. Whether A/B or multiV.
    In this way, reaction to content by users against a qualified hypothesis can be measured in a timely manner.

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