The Discipline of Content Strategy
Issue № 274

The Discipline of Content Strategy

We, the people who make websites, have been talking for fifteen years about user experience, information architecture, content management systems, coding, metadata, visual design, user research, and all the other disciplines that facilitate our users’ abilities to find and consume content.

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Weirdly, though, we haven’t been talking about the meat of the matter. We haven’t been talking about the content itself.

Yeah, yeah. We know how to write for online readers. We know bullet lists pwn.

But who among us is asking the scary, important questions about content, such as “What’s the point?” or “Who cares?” Who’s talking about the time-intensive, complicated, messy content development process? Who’s overseeing the care and feeding of content once it’s out there, clogging up the tubes and dragging down our search engines?

As a community, we’re rather quiet on the matter of content. In fact, we appear to have collectively, silently come to the conclusion that content is really somebody else’s problem—“the client can do it,” “the users will generate it”—so we, the people who make websites, shouldn’t have to worry about it in the first place.

Do you think it’s a coincidence, then, that web content is, for the most part, crap?

Dealing with content is messy. It’s complicated, it’s painful, and it’s expensive.

And yet, the web is content. Content is the web. It deserves our time and attention.

And that’s where content strategy comes in.

What is Content Strategy?#section2

Content strategy plans for the creation, publication, and governance of useful, usable content.

Necessarily, the content strategist must work to define not only which content will be published, but why we’re publishing it in the first place.

Otherwise, content strategy isn’t strategy at all: it’s just a glorified production line for content nobody really needs or wants. (See: your company’s CMS.)

Content strategy is also—surprise—a key deliverable for which the content strategist is responsible. Its development is necessarily preceded by a detailed audit and analysis of existing content—a critically important process that’s often glossed over or even skipped by project teams.

At its best, a content strategy defines:

  • key themes and messages,
  • recommended topics,
  • content purpose (i.e., how content will bridge the space between audience needs and business requirements),
  • content gap analysis,
  • metadata frameworks and related content attributes,
  • search engine optimization (SEO), and
  • implications of strategic recommendations on content creation, publication, and governance.

But wait…there’s more#section3

In her groundbreaking article, Content Strategy: the Philosophy of Data, Rachel Lovinger said:

The main goal of content strategy is to use words and data to create unambiguous content that supports meaningful, interactive experiences. We have to be experts in all aspects of communication in order to do this effectively.

That’s a tall order. I’d like to propose that, in fact, there are far too many “aspects of communication” for a solitary content strategist to truly claim deep expertise in all of them.

Instead, let’s assume that there are a number of content-related disciplines that deserve their own definition, by turn:

  • Editorial strategy defines the guidelines by which all online content is governed: values, voice, tone, legal and regulatory concerns, user-generated content, and so on. This practice also defines an organization’s online editorial calendar, including content life cycles.
  • Web writing is the practice of writing useful, usable content specifically intended for online publication. This is a whole lot more than smart copywriting. An effective web writer must understand the basics of user experience design, be able to translate information architecture documentation, write effective metadata, and manage an ever-changing content inventory.
  • Metadata strategy identifies the type and structure of metadata, also known as “data about data” (or content). Smart, well-structured metadata helps publishers to identify, organize, use, and reuse content in ways that are meaningful to key audiences.
  • Search engine optimization is the process of editing and organizing the content on a page or across a website (including metadata) to increase its potential relevance to specific search engine keywords.
  • Content management strategy defines the technologies needed to capture, store, deliver, and preserve an organization’s content. Publishing infrastructures, content life cycles and workflows are key considerations of this strategy.
  • Content channel distribution strategy defines how and where content will be made available to users. (Side note: please consider e-mail marketing in the context of this practice; it’s a way to distribute content and drive people to find information on your website, not a standalone marketing tactic.)

Now, this breakdown certainly doesn’t imply that a content strategist can’t or shouldn’t be capable of playing these roles and creating the associated deliverables. In fact, in my experience, the content strategist is a rare breed who’s often willing and able to embrace these roles as necessary to deliver useful, usable content.

BUT. And this is a big “but.” If our community fails to recognize, divide, and conquer the multiple roles associated with planning for, creating, publishing, and governing content, we’ll keep underestimating the time, budget, and expertise it takes to do content right. We won’t clearly define and defend the process to our companies and clients. We’ll keep getting stuck with 11th-hour directives, fix-it-later copy drafts—and we’ll keep on publishing crap.

We can do better. Our clients and employers deserve it. Our audiences deserve it. We as users deserve it.

Take up the torch#section4

David Campbell, the founder of Saks Fifth Avenue, said, “Discipline is remembering what you want.”

When it comes to creating and governing content, it’s easy to forget what we want, or even worse, to settle for less.

But until we commit to treating content as a critical asset worthy of strategic planning and meaningful investment, we’ll continue to churn out worthless content in reaction to unmeasured requests. We’ll keep trying to fit words, audio, graphics, and video into page templates that weren’t truly designed with our business’s real-world content requirements in mind. Our customers still won’t find what they’re looking for. And we’ll keep failing to publish useful, usable content that people actually care about.

Stop pretending content is somebody else’s problem. Take up the torch for content strategy. Learn it. Practice it. Promote it. It’s time to make content matter.

About the Author

Kristina Halvorson

Kristina Halvorson is the founder and president of Brain Traffic, a web content agency. Since 1997, Kristina has led hundreds of content strategy and web writing projects of all shapes and sizes. She is a passionate advocate for content strategy and wants you to be, too. Follow Kristina on Twitter @halvorson.

50 Reader Comments

  1. I totally agree with what you are saying. The vast majority of content is written quickly with very little thought, or just copied and pasted from somewhere else. The difficulty in all this process is convincing clients that the lengthy and costly process of writing great content is worth it though. 🙁

  2. I think it’s funny when content is talked about this way. It makes sense, but all I can think about is the countless web-spam articles put out by my last employer. Content, even by the big guys is spam these days. Nearly everything is syndicated from somewhere else, and changed enough to help one’s sit rank. Frustrating really, isn’t it.

  3. I completely agree with you. How many times do I hear “let’s put it up there”? Who cares? Exactly! Is our target audience interested in our press releases? Most likely not, and especially not in a 1:1 copy of it or even worse in PDF.

    Luckily nowadays the user is in charge, if they don’t find what they need or don’t like what they find they are gone and your business lost another customer. Get to the essence of the message and speak the language of your users!

    PS.: I ‘put up’ a bullet-point list of what I think are good (general) “Design Guidelines for Content”: and I’d love to hear your opinion on it.

  4. It kind of creeps me out how similar Content Strategy’s emergence and development as a discipline mirrors that of “mainstream” IA 10 years ago.

    “¢ The same heartburn over “naming the damn thing”
    “¢ Questions about overlap – “I thought {discipline X} already does that”
    “¢ Everyone in the field mostly making it up as they go
    “¢ Sharply divergent backgrounds with predictable “styles” of output
    “¢ Plenty of frustration
    “¢ Tons of opportunity
    “¢ Sweet, sweet excitement over “the new”

    I’m terribly pleased to be in this role – all of us with backgrounds in writing, editing, and/or IA who’ve been looking for the right way to move up the funnel in the face of sites that go out the door w/out genuine value to the users – now we have a better defined role to enable our best thinking to make it into the end product.

    The “I’ll just throw some lorem ipsum into my wireframe and verbally walk the creative team through it” approach produces substandard results. Fears of stepping on toes and speaking out of one’s discipline is a relic of siloed teamspaces (Armano-style “fuzziness” is teh awesome!)

    2009’s gonna be a big year for Content Strategy – those of us in the role in an official capacity and those who see a “right-fit” for themselves here should organize and help each other out.

    Let’s see if we can make the same progress we’ve made with IA in half the time!

  5. I’ve been working as a web content professional for 2 years now. It has always perplexed me why content professionals have completely failed to coalesce into an organized community that establishes and shares best practices, communicates its challenges and concerns to clients and web colleagues, and cultivates the discipline with vigor and direction.

    Thanks to Kristina Halvorson, Jeffrey MacIntyre, Erin Kissane, Amber Simmons and others on ALA who have written some great calls to action, but we all need to emerge from our candle-lit burrows and come together in a serious way if we really want web writing, editing, and strategy to progress. Next steps, anyone?

  6. For an article *about* content, this one seems relatively light on it. How about some concrete examples, or “actionable” (in the parlance of the profession) recommendations?

  7. Most important in my opinion is that the user find the content he´s looking for. You always have to understand your users. This is much more difficult than it seems.

  8. Very good points raised here, but I’m missing some more information.
    Can you recommend some reading material – online articles, books, e-books and such?

  9. Really liked reading this post some great comments made but what is the definition “content gap analysis”, is it simply adding content that should be on your site that is not??

  10. The importance of the role of a Content Strategist within a group of people who make websites seems obvious to me.

    Working alone, I have found it extremely difficult to get clients to provide me with clear and concise content that people will care about. I usually end up using what they’ve wrote, rewrite some and just try to make it work as best I can.

    While I may not ever be a “Content Strategist” myself, I hope that by using some of the arguments made here I can become better at educating clients and help them publish more meaningful and useful content.

  11. As a freelancer most of my clients come to me expecting that I will generate content for them. Often they will have some content, but they expect me to edit what they have and to add new. This is a huge challenge and something I’ve paid particular attention to for the past year.

    The one thing I try to keep focused on is the needs of the target audience – much the same when going through the design process. But in the end, content is just as (or more) important when I’m done and gone than in the initial design. It is difficult to convince many clients that they need someone dedicated to working their site.

  12. I’m delighted by the interest and response this issue of ALA has generated! It’s a big day for content strategy – thanks again to the ALA editorial team for picking up both articles.

    *Educating the client*: Folks, I hear your frustration. At the same time, to throw up our hands and say that clients just don’t get it isn’t going to solve the issue.

    To sell clients on the importance and value of better web content, it’s critically important show them how content impacts user experience. I’ve found that an easy approach is walk them through a 10-minute exercise that goes like this: Ask your clients to imagine they’re shopping for car insurance. Brainstorm for 2 minutes the main questions they’ll have as they shop online. Then, show 4-5 home pages from major auto insurance providers. Does the copy on those sites speak to their needs? Inspire trust? Drive action? Or does it just get in their way?

    That exercise usually gets people’s attention pretty quickly, because it forces the client to experience bad content as a user, firsthand.

    *Building the discipline, creating community*: Chris and Dan, YES. A terrific first step will be the first-ever Content Strategy Consortium, to be held as a pre-conference event at the “2009 IA Summit”: . I have the honor of facilitating the consortium, and we’ll be opening up the request-to-participate application process shortly. Watch for the announcement from AS-IS, and I’ll also post on Twitter and the “Brain Traffic blog”: .

    In the meantime, put your own CS deck together and shop it to every conference you can. (If you’re a practitioner, I’m looking at you.)

    *Recommended reading*: The only book I’ve found on content strategy is “The Web Content Strategist’s Bible”: – self-published by Richard Sheffield, a content strategist at UPS. (I’m working on a book that will published by New Riders Voices that Matter in June 2009.) Online, we just started up our new blog at Brain Traffic, so keep an eye on it. “Jeff MacIntyre’s site”: is a great aggregater of articles on the topic. Mostly, though, there’s not much else out there. Which means it’s time for all of you to start writing about content strategy! Go, team!

  13. Finally.. someone who advocates the importance of content. In the various aspects of website design often content is the most neglected. I hope people realize the importance of strategized web content..

  14. Whenever I’ve had anything to do with content in an e-commerce context, it always strikes me that there’s a contradiction at the heart of most content strategies that prevents them from becoming realities. That contradiction is down to the fact that people who are able to write and maintain good, relevant, engaging content are rapidly bored witless by having to actually do it all day.

    I’m not talking about narrative “article” content, or meatier things like travel guides, but the “utilitarian” content about products and services. It is this content on the web, and under the auspices of Google in particular, that is basically paydirt for online businesses. If I can’t see a decent write-up for that nose hair clipper I want, I’ll go to another site that has one. But it’s dry, boring and tedious to maintain – and hence most of it is recycled shovelware, as many here have pointed out.

    What can we do about that? UGC is one answer, but it’s a difficult one. All I know is I’d rather stick pins in my eyes than make a career out of writing content for the web.

  15. Hi Kristina,

    I really enjoyed your article, in fact I took screen captures of your bullet points so I can stick them up on my wall to easily remind myself later (honestly… I don’t do that _all_ the time!).

    I have to say though, that I was a little disappointed to go to the Brain Traffic site to see if I could pick up any pointers about handling metadata, using microformats etc only to find that the homepage has no h1, the first h2 is empty, there are no titles on links, metadata is fairly minimal etc…

    I know that your emphasis is on Content Strategy as a whole, and I take the point that nobody can be a ‘deep expert’ on everything. Nevertheless, I can’t help feeling that leaders in the discussion and promotion of issues related to the web should make more of an effort in this regard.

    Okay – thanks for the thought-provoking article and I hope to read more from you in the future!


  16. The car insurance exercise sounds great, Kristina. I will definitely be using that one.

    I came into web design on the design side, then I started to learn about the web and now I am learning about content. Could that be more backwards?

  17. Yes, content development and maintenance can be tedious. The solution: find someone for the job who revels in pedantry. Say, a former lit. and writing instructor, like myself, who will crack open a CMS to change a hyphen into a proper em dash.

    Such a person, in the e-commerce context Jonathan mentions, will approach writing 300 short product descriptions like a 17th century poet cranking out religious sonnets.

    Seriously; it’s about being committed to finding the right person/people to do content right.

  18. I work for a web development and design consultancy and just last week I had a discussion with the owner about this exact thing. I am the “content person” on staff (we’re small) and never get to do content development because we don’t have the budget for it. It’s the first thing cut because clients don’t see the value. I keep evangelizing and this article is great ammo! I’m on the bus.

  19. Just a few days ago my boss was asking if it was possible to import RSS feeds in lieu of actually having to hire writers so we could have content right off the bat and people would “start showing up” to a website idea he wanted to “try out”.

    It makes no sense. We have a magazine we produce that isn’t half bad – if we actually created a website for it that had some content on it, that would be an excellent way to get some attention. We already have a decent local reader base (about 30,000) – why not try to build on that through a website? Instead he’s completely ignoring the idea and trying to come up with these little placeholder websites in all sorts of categories because he thinks that by linking them to each other, we will magically start getting massive hits.

    I’ve been trying to explain my position for a while now – hopefully you’re better at getting the point across than I am. Time to forward it to the boss.

  20. @Dan Haley: “The solution: find someone for the job who revels in pedantry. Say, a former lit. and writing instructor, like myself, who will crack open a CMS to change a hyphen into a proper em dash.”

    And would that person be just as keen after having edited (or written) their 10,000th hair-dryer product feature list that year? In my experience, that’s the problem. It has nothing to do with anyone’s aptitude for the work – it’s their ability over time to want to do it.

  21. Cover your eyes, children.

    Sure, we are probably a strange breed of people, but we web writers revel in taking content that’s not fit for consumption and turning it into something that is truly useful. We geek out over it each and every day. Don’t believe me? Check out our latest blog post describing how we agree to break the rules of grammar for the sake of our readers:

  22. Writing for the web is the single most challenging writing job I’ve had. I’ve done years of so-called “fun” writing, but nothing quite compares to finding a useful way to really help users with words. Distilling information and making it anything BUT boring and tedious has been completely satisfying. I highly recommend it.

  23. KEY WORDS do not work-they never have. What works is understanding the meaning of the words within the context they are used!

    Why is nobody talking about this? I’m a big fan of Cognition-and no I do not work for them-but I would love for them to be integrated into every search on the planet so we can find relevant information; not content with a word totally out of context! Drives me crazy.

  24. While I agree that content has to be given more priority (what’s the point of sweating the design if you have nothing to say and you say it poorly?), why do we have “content strategists?” I find it quite interesting. Smacks of doublespeak to me.

    Writers and editors are perfectly acceptable 2-bit terms for me. Writing, editing and design have to work hand-in-hand for the best presentation, too. Either through one person or through a team effort. Can’t have a two-legged stool.

    Again, while I applaud the efforts of the “content strategists,” this is not new ground you’re plowing. In my field of newspaper design, it’s, well, old news. I have been preaching some of these same ideas since 1985 in print design and 1994 in web design. There were others before me.

    Love the conversation, but thought I would add a little perspective from a former ink-stained wretch, now a pixel-stained wretch. Cheers, /Bob

  25. I love the line “Who’s overseeing the care and feeding of content once it’s out there, clogging up the tubes and dragging down our search engines?” – this is a big part of the reason why I went into Content Strategy in the first place.

    Halvorson seems to be saying that we need to hit this on two fronts – deepen our expertise in various aspects of Content Strategy, and build awareness of the need for content to actually be based on real strategy, instead of added in at the end of a web project, almost as an afterthought. And, on both counts, I agree.

    The article makes some excellent points, though it’s clear from the comments that there is still a need to connect the dots. I think this is the challenge set forth for those of us in the discipline right now. I’m glad to see the conversation taking place.

    I could go on and on about this, of course, but I don’t want to take up the entire comments page. So I’ve posted more of my thoughts over on my blog.

  26. It’s great to finally have time to wade into the splendid comments here and in my piece. In a perfect segueway, I actually arrived fresh from Rachel’s post (above).

    And it’s appropriate to see Rachel’s voice added to the choir here, seeing as her seminal Boxes & Arrows article is in some respects the stimulus for the disciplinary chat underway now. And, I think, for content strategy’s steady–if decidedly uphill–path to maturation. Which is more apparent in some quarters than others.

    Enough sentence fragments already. To Rachel’s point, there is an acute need for content strategists who can speak across our various specialist camps (true bliss is seeing a CMS architect [Venus] and copywriter [Mars] holding hands) in a way that’s meaningful to those who employ us for our services. I consider the emergence of agencies such as Brain Traffic as powerful evidence that the canopy of content strategy is growing to a size commensurate with the value of its role to digital publishers.

    More telling: they increasingly ask for us, and our handiwork, by name.

  27. Is it just me, or are some parts of this conversation a bit abstract and hard to connect with the daily work that most of us do?

    I’ve been writing and editing web content — and designing and building web sites — about computing and communication services at a well-known university in California for 13 years. Before that, I wrote and edited everything from letters placating angry alumni to grant applications, op-ed pieces, speeches, and marketing copy in various non-profit environments.

    I believe that the “content strategy” that you’ve all described here is something that has been expected of me throughout my career. It’s true that the web demands more from “content people” than other modes of communicating do: writing for the web, especially for applications, can at times resemble the exacting AND creative experience of fitting one’s thoughts into a specific verse form. Or a display ad. For that reason, I wouldn’t expect the service managers and technology strategists I work with to understand what’s appropriate for web sites to the degree I expect them to understand what’s appropriate for a white paper, or even a bulk-email or printed product brochure.

    But I still have to count on those service managers, technology strategists, engineers, etc., to educate me in the first place about the subject of my words and ultimate purpose of my code, whether I’m the one who determines (strategizes) what to say or not. For their part, they expect to be involved in reviewing and approving what I get up on the web for them. For me, whether you call this set of responsibilities “content strategy” or something else, the words-on-the-web part remains an important part of the turf, my turf, of writing and editing.

  28. I wonder if some of the commenters here are missing the point. A few people seem to assume that ‘content strategy’ is the same as writing or editing, when it patently isn’t. In fact, content doesn’t have to involve any writing at all.

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

    Great article, by the way. It’s something I’m keen to learn much more about.

  29. Terrific to see an article and comments wrestling with the real issues of content: the messiness, the politics, the time and continued attention! Are we maintaining websites, or attempting to raise the offspring of an acrimonious divorce? 😉

    I wholeheartedly agree with Kristina’s perspective, and Rachel’s before that, though I would even go so far to say it’s time to reorder that initial description: _”the main goal of content strategy is to use words and data to create unambiguous content that supports meaningful, interactive experiences.”_ Does content _support_ those interactive experiences, or is it really the other way around? Isn’t content the meat and potatoes which the details of interactivity—put image here, link to related items to prop up CTAs, etc.—support? Don’t key interactive choice _support_ content by making it more accessible and _delivering_ it to the user?

    We often take clients back to that fundamental question: why will your target audience come to this site? If they’re stomping through the proverbial muck of the web just to marvel at your flat, broad navigation, terrific! You’ve found your niche! But more likely, most people come to read your latest blog post, find details on the camera they want to buy, or read reviews for movies they’re considering for Saturday night. The “interactive experience” they employ to get to the meat and potatoes shouldn’t stand in their way, but isn’t why they’re coming to your site either.

    And all that points to the clear need for strategy, before and beyond just writing. Writing without strategy is like driving without a map; cruising around on a Sunday afternoon is fine for the driver (writer), but terribly annoying for all the folks behind you on the road. Good writers attuned to their context—perhaps other articles in the newspaper—and sensitive to their audience may unconsciously formulate strategy within their microcosm, but in my experience separating the responsibilities by time and role make for a better end product. And in the world of “stickiness” and keeping a site fresh—perhaps in reviews as Jonathan mentions—that end product is never at a true “end”, but rather always ready to be refreshed in accordance with a broader content strategy.

  30. “A few people seem to assume that “˜content strategy’ is the same as writing or editing, when it patently isn’t.” — Patrick

    I assume I am one who is missing the point. But my own missed point was that writers and editors have ALWAYS been content strategists. I think Dave grokked it. Yes, I agree that, because of new modalities, being a writer/editor today includes some new tasks and tools, but the philosophy remains the same: make it work for the reader (gads, I hate “user” and yes, I understand that not all content is writing).

    I just think we are all caught up in specialist terms such as “content strategy,” “information architecture,” “user experience,” “user interface” and so on, maybe because it makes the whole process seem more high-falutin’. But it’s like Ear, Nose and Throat doctors working only on the left ear and right nostril.

    I absolutely agree with the article and the excellent points made in it and a few of the comments. We all need to do what we can to make meaning transfer as easy and pleasurable as possible. I am just disagreeing with what we call the parts and the process. It’s become more complicated than necessary.

    I agree with Dave, who, because he does the same things, still would prefer being an old-fashioned writer/editor/designer. Works for me, too.

  31. 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.

  32. 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

    bq. 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.

  33. 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.

  34. 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.

  35. 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!

  36. 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.

  37. 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!

  38. 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.


  39. 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.

  40. 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?

  41. 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.

  42. 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.

  43. 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.

  44. 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!

  45. 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”.

  46. 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!

  47. 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.

  48. 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)

  49. 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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