A List Apart


Illustration by Kevin Cornell

Tinker, Tailor, Content Strategist

Five years ago I wrote Content Strategy: The Philosophy of Data to encourage people to think more deeply about content and how they use it. Since then, the population of people focusing their wonderful brains on the content conundrum has grown every year.

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We’ve been defining our terms, our responsibilities, and our deliverables. We’ve been developing strategies, tactics, and specialties. We’ve been broadening our horizons, filling out our ranks, and learning new ways to collaborate with our neighboring disciplines. All of these activities are important for an emerging practice, but to keep moving forward we also have to ask ourselves: how do we achieve mastery? We have to be able to think strategically about content and how the elements of content relate to one another, to ensure that the content creator’s vision is brought to life.

“Mastery” would bring the focus of content strategy beyond editorial strategy. It would require us to look past our immediate content activities and gaps in communication about content needs with people from every discipline we work with. To do this, we’ll have to rely on our negotiation skills, and we’ll have to translate our message into the native language for each discipline, because we’ll need to influence colleagues over whom we have no authority. We’ll also need to develop some advanced content strategy capabilities.

Content strategy basics: editorial strategy for non-publishers

Many early public responses to content strategy discussions were, “This sounds like a fancy name for an editor.” I have to admit, I was annoyed by comments like this, even though I have nothing against editors, or against doing editing work. However, editing represents a very small segment of my responsibilities as a content strategist. I wouldn’t even consider it one of my core responsibilities.

Recently my view on the relationship of editorial expertise and content strategy has shifted a little. We’re always saying “Everyone’s a publisher” and I realized that, at the moment, the growing demand for content strategy is often related to the need to bring an editorial viewpoint to organizations with no significant history of content creation. They need guidance on how to source, edit, produce, and maintain content. They need advice on staffing, governance, workflow, tone, quality, timing, and pruning the ROT from their overflowing archives.

Editing is necessary work and will continue to be the bulk of what business asks of content strategy for the next decade or so. But it’s tailors teaching young adults how to fix the broken buttons on their shirts. It’s not mastery of the craft.

Content strategy advanced: translate and negotiate

A content strategy must achieve a harmonic balance between business goals, editorial mission, user expectations, design vision, the content production process, and technological capabilities. All of these elements must work together to bring a content strategy to life. You won’t get very far with that grand plan to create content once and seamlessly publish it to multiple platforms if you don’t have a publishing system with multi-platform publishing capabilities. Similarly, if you have a system that requires a publishing process that takes more time than people have allocated in a day, even the most delightful content plan is not going to be sustainable.

Why would the responsibility for this balance fall to the content strategist when clearly it encompasses things that you can’t control, like the available technology and human resources? Content is the common thread that runs through all of these elements, and often it’s a lot easier to control your approach to the content than it is to buy new technology or hire new people. The content strategist must advocate for content at all stages of a project. People in other roles may take up that mantle as well, but in their specific sphere of influence, in their particular phase of the project. The content strategist must make sure that the vision for the content carries through from initial business concept through design and implementation, to maintenance and beyond.

A case in point

On a recent project, we created one type of article that, in some cases, needed to have alternate visual elements—the logo, the background image, the color of the headings and buttons—but everything else was exactly the same. The tech team enabled this choice by including a pull-down menu in the UI that allowed the content creators to choose between two different templates.

Later, we created a second type of article that also needed to have these two versions. The tech lead decided that, since most of the code was identical, they could accomplish the same effect by having a single template and adding a checkbox that, when checked, would cause the template to just swap out the images and styles. Understandably, he reasoned that this would save his team time in creating, testing, and revising code because it would all be in one template instead of two. But it would also mean that the users of this CMS would make their choice by pull-down menu on one type of article and by checkbox on another, setting the stage for confusion and error for the content creators.

CMS users need advocates too

I told him “No way.” The content producers were already struggling to understand and adapt to this new CMS. We couldn’t start throwing them curveballs like having different ways to do the same thing for different article types. An approach that saved the development team a few hours of work over the next few weeks would confuse the CMS users for many years to come. I couldn’t let the team take that shortcut. The tech lead’s reaction: “I had a feeling you’d say that.”

Upholding the content vision through an entire project is no easy task, and sometimes it means having to compromise. But we must aim to optimize each one of those elements—business goals, editorial mission, user expectations, design vision, the content production process, and technological capabilities—by having them work in concert with each other. That means keeping a lot of lines of thought going at once. It also means trying to coordinate between a bunch of different stakeholders who sometimes have conflicting needs and sometimes barely speak the same language.

To support our roles as translators and negotiators, many of the deliverables that content strategists create are intended to bridge communication gaps between two or more of these audiences. For example:

  • A content inventory helps communicate the content history and editorial focus to the designers and business stakeholders.
  • Content analytics and search metrics help communicate to editorial and business which content engages the users, and what they’re looking for that they’re not finding.
  • An editorial style guide helps ensure that the content the editorial team creates has a clear, consistent, on-message voice that aligns with the brand and the business goals.

Advanced content strategy is more than just defining the editorial voice and processes. We advocate for the content creators, but we also represent and support the content vision throughout all project phases, with all of the important stakeholders. This is the position we need to be in before we can even consider moving on to master-level content strategy.

Content strategy mastery

So what does mastery look like? As in any field, it comes down to having master skills and knowing when to apply them. We acknowledge that there are different styles of content strategy—mainly an editorial/messaging focus and a technical/structural focus—but the master content strategist must work with content from all angles. Messaging architecture and messaging platforms. Content missions and content management.

Of course much of the work we do with content is very detailed and tactical. But it’s when we operate at the big picture level that we see the overall content vision and how we can help the entire team make sure the project follows that path. In content strategy, our master skills must include translating and negotiating, so that we can facilitate communication between disparate disciplines and help them to collaborate.

Underneath it all, a master content strategist must be an advocate and a diplomat. We must advocate on behalf of the end users, the business users, the stakeholders, and the content vision itself. And we must use diplomacy to influence a wide range of people over whom we don’t have any actual authority.

Content strategy is new enough that we’re still defining our version of mastery, and I don’t think anyone in the field can claim to have achieved it. I’m sure we’ve identified some master skills though, and I ask the community to share their ideas and suggestions so that the entire discipline can learn and grow.

What are your favorite master skills, or the master skills you aspire to learn?

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