Skip to content

Content Strategy Forum writeup

On 5-6 September my colleague Stephen and I attended the second CS Forum in London.

“Content strategy” is the latest buzz-phrase gaining traction in our industry, joining usability, information architecture, interaction design, user experience, accessibility and the like. As with the others, there is a great deal of overlap, but it’s a term I think will endure, as it gets to the nub of the biggest unsolved problem in web projects.

Put simply, it’s that content remains the weak link in most projects. Online content sucks much of the time. There’s too much uninteresting content, not enough useful content, and responsibility for creating and improving it is diffuse. Poor content often exposes the most convincing information architecture and wireframes as a fantasy of wishful thinking.

Content strategy brings out the pessimist in me. There are many reasons why it’s such a hard problem:

  • Getting good quality content out of organisations that do not see themselves as publishers is like getting blood out of a stone.
  • Most content strategy problems are human – political, organisational – on the client side; those you (as external agency/consultant) are least equipped to solve, often going beyond your remit.
  • It’s always easier to make content strategy the client’s problem – you don’t want to accept responsibility for something that is so likely to go wrong.
  • Well-structured content is a Good Thing, but the better structured your data (both information architecture and content types), the worse problems you face when the structure is no longer fit for purpose, and editors try to get around the structure you’ve imposed.

Conference themes

The following themes occurred repeatedly during the conference:

  • We forget to consider the user experience of the content creators (usually in a CMS), in focusing on only the site users
  • Fragmented organisational structures, e.g. lack of communication between developers, designers, copywriters and client
  • Not knowing the CMS well enough, or choosing a CMS without consulting content creators
  • Not learning the lessons of separating content from presentation – content should be produced from a “create once, publish anywhere” approach
  • Lorem ipsum is a problem – it’s always better to design from the content out

The following are not so much summaries of all the talks I attended, as the most interesting things I took away from them. Some writeups are therefore much longer than others.

Gerry McGovern – Manage the tasks, not the content

Back in 2003, his books “Content Critical” and “The Web Content Style Guide” had a huge influence on me and helped guide the content strategy on, which I was working on at the time.

He reminded us that people go to website to do specific things on a website; any content that is not related to those essential tasks should be cut. He particularly dislikes marketing content. “Support is the new marketing”, he says, meaning that the “customer service” content should be the main focus of a site, rather than marketing content.

Avoid unhelpful navigational labels like “Articles” or “FAQs”, and link text should be written to make the keywords clear. (All principles familiar from information architecture best practices.)

Finally, Gerry made a plea for measuring content success, with the emphasis on useful metrics. Figures like visitor numbers, time on page, eye-tracking “fixation time” are all relatively useless – why do we assume that more = better? A/B testing yields more credible insights.

Melissa Rach – Content strategy methodology: a DIY project

Melissa talked about methodology – what strategists do – such as

  • Create clarity
  • Facilitate smart decisions
  • Align stakeholders
  • Help operationalize change

These steps have both content components and people components. But like many talks, it mainly deals with the what (none surprising), but not the how, which is where the the problems lie in my experience.

Margo Bloomstein – First things first: message matters

This talk recommended establishing a “message architecture” as a first step. Via card-sorting, help the client establish

  • Who we are
  • Who we’re not
  • Who we’d like to be

…and tell the story of those aspirations. The message architecture drives the copywriting, the user experience and design, and becomes the benchmark by which to evaluate success later.

This is valid advice, but not always within my remit, and also not really where the worst problems originate.

Karen McGrane – The way forward: what’s next for content strategy

This gets my vote for the best talk of the conference, as it homes in on all the biggest problem areas. You can watch it on Vimeo

Problems usually don’t lie in technology, but in company structure. She describes her role as “corporate therapy”. Companies suffer from fragmentation:

  • fragmented content management
  • fragmented organisation structures
  • fragmented devices and platforms

Content strategy – part of UX – should function as the bridge between marketing and technology. Content strategy is often about organisational change management.

Karen acknowledged to me in conversation afterwards that solutions to these problems are often out of your grasp and if she could do certain projects over again, she wouldn’t necessarily be able to prevent them.

The CMS – “the enterprise software that UX forgot” – is another major problem area. Why do we care more about the conversion funnel than the CMS workflow? Why do we care about the user experience of site visitors, but not editors? We need to work with the developers implementing the CMS from the beginning. And even before that, CMS procurement should be on the basis of usability – workflow that matches editors’ mental model – rather than feature checklists. A better CMS fosters better content.

As for the developing content for a fragmented landscape of devices and platforms, Karen compared the approaches of Condé Nast and NPR. Condé Nast’s strategy, by creating iPad apps for their magazines like Wired, is unsustainable. Ethan Marcotte: “Fragmenting content across ‘device-optimised’ experiences is a losing proposition” . By contrast, NPR pursued a “Create Once, Publish Anywhere” approach, by building an API that enables their content to be deployed in a multitude of contexts. This is why we need flexible, structured content, and why Ethan Resnick claimed “Metadata is the new art direction”.

These are all familiar principles to information architects, but as Karen said, Mobile is a great wedge to bring the argument up again.

Lisa Welchman – On All the Different “Web Governances” in the Universe

Governance refers to a policy and standards. Some key points:

  • A policy that no-one knows exists, or reads, doesn’t exist
  • Policy that you don’t have the authority to implement doesn’t make sense
  • Don’t be a barrier to organisational change that needs to take place (I suspect this is aimed more at insiders than consultants)

Lisa then introduced the recently-formed Web Governance Journal.

Eric Reiss – Content strategists: the men and women of a new renaissance

Eric summed up the big problem I have with content strategy: “Strategy is easy. The rest is tactics.” We often know what needs to be done, but making it happen is where the problems lie.

Erin Kissane – Making sense of the (new) new content landscape

Erin invoked the old IA favourite, Christopher Alexander, who in his treatises on architecture described enduring patterns such as balance, interconnection and stability, and fundamental user needs that products are useful, accessible, findable, searchable, portable and usable in many ways.

We need to preserve the life of our strategic decisions to enhance the life of our visitors.

Des Traynor – The language of software: the role of content strategy in software development

Des talked about websites (or web applications) with strong social elements or user-generated content. In such cases, there may not be much content to begin with, but what we do control, is

  • The user interface
  • The blank slate (what users start with)
  • The content definition

Thus “you get the content you deserve”.

  1. User interface: “Language influences behaviour”. Consider the ramifications of labeling decisions like “tweet” (not share, update, set, publish, post…) or “like” (not love, or appreciate…) E.g you can “+1” something where “like” isn’t appropriate. The Zune’s coolest feature, instant sharing via wifi, was arguably killed at birth by the term “squirt”.
  2. Blank slate: Consider the different quality of user-generated content on YouTube, Yahoo Answers, Quora, Get Satisfaction. By subtle elements in how they let you compose, the results can be idiotic or serious, disrespectful or civil. Google Wave undermined itself with unconvincing sample/seed content.
  3. Content definition: Compare the quality of TripAdvisor reviews with those on the Apple app store (where ratings don’t differentiate between e.g. technical problems or product suitability.)

Des showed an example of a “microcopy framework” for an application. This is a spreadsheet containing all messages in the application, and their aims and expected tone of voice.

Content is “always an opportunity to delight your user”. +1

Richard Ingram – How did we all get here?

Richard revealed the results of several surveys on professionals who consider themselves content strategists, in the form of gratuitous infographics 🙂 which you can view here.

His blog’s title is a veiled entreatment to abandon Lorem Ipsum.

Martin Belam ( @currybet – Content strategy for people who think they already have one

As expected, another stand-out talk, but probably one of the least applicable to me. Journalistic organisations tend not to have the CS problems I find most intractable (they actually have qualified writers and editors), although they have different problems relating to the business model – extracting the greatest value from content – and publishing across a ever-fragmenting landscape.

The Guardian is also an ideal organisation in many respects – doing their development in-house with good collaboration between editors (a fascinating story of “domain driven design” in itself), IAs and developers, and using a custom-built CMS that dispenses with a lot of complex workflow in favour of trust. Having a controlled taxonomy of keywords with a single manager is also something that on most projects I can but dream of.

In keeping with one of the main themes of the conference, Martin stressed the benefits of an API approach to deal with platform fragmentation – create once, publish anywhere.

I liked Martin’s advice to teach using a “portfolio of errors” – showing the mistakes others have made before, rather than criticising your colleagues’ efforts.

Martin ended with a healthy reminder for all “content strategists” not to forget their Information Architecture, and the decade-plus of prior art. (The vast majority of the conference would have sat comfortably under an IA banner.)

Sophie Dennis @sophiedennis – How web designers can stop worrying and learn to love content strategy

I enjoyed Sophie’s talk, which grappled with the all-too-familiar problem their own agency website, which no-one likes but never gets fixed. 

Sophie pointed out that “lorem ipsum” dummy text is specifically intended not to be read, hence it results in designs that are simply not reader-friendly, where the text is the least important component of the design.

When we start designing with real content, we become better designers. However, this is usually not realistic. The pressure to design first typically comes from clients – “I’ll know what to write when I see it”.

In response, Sophie proposed an agile approach, where neither comes first. For their own agency site redesign, she turned off CSS on the existing site and, working with the HTML rather than wireframes, started rewriting – this made it easy for everyone to focus on the content. Then, it became easy to start adding style and “grow the brand out from there”.

Sophie is also a fan of spreadsheets instead of tree-diagram sitemaps, as they are much better at communicating scope. Sitemaps can give a misleading mental model of the amount of content on a site. Spreadsheets are also more accessible and collaborative.

Kate Kenyon @kate_kenyon – Content strategy and CMSs

Valuable reminders never to ignore the CMS. As the content strategist, you need to own it, and understand the publishing process. Find out where it fits in the technical ecosystem. Ideally, the CMS should be procured from the user requirements of the editors.

Good reminders for me. For a long time I intentionally ignored the CMS, believing that it was my duty to focus on the user experience and not be “captured” by the tech constituent.

Cleve Gibbons @cleveg – Strategist and executioner

We’re used to doing “customer journeys”, Cleve said, but we hardly ever do “author journeys”. Optimise the author journey, focus on making authors proficient and productive.

More exhortations to bring technologists to the table when content management is discussed. Developers shouldn’t just “take the ticket and implement” something; they should ask “Why?” more often – what’s the aim of the requirement?

(I agree, from painful experience – many well-intentioned features I designed turned out, after implementation, to result in such editor overhead in the CMS that the features went unused.)

Lisa Moore @writebyteuk – Agile and Content Strategy

Lisa espoused Agile principles such as “putting deliverables on a diet” – keeping documentation to a minimum (I agree), developing early, and testing often.

The team structure she described had separate content strategists and copywriters – she recommends that these people should be involved in all meetings with IAs and developers. However, in most of my projects these don’t exist as separate roles.

Lisa also recommended using real content as far as possible in wireframes – besides benefiting design, another advantage is that it’s likely to be included in user tests.

Noz Urbina @nozurbina – B2B content strategy

Noz made a compelling case for replacing the traditional marketing content with customer service content – i.e. the stuff you usually got after the sale is then driving the sale (echoing Gerry McGovern from earlier.)

B2B (as opposed to B2C) compels you to focus on customer retention rather than acquisition.

Noz saw our role as “consultant within the enterprise” – that if everyone just stuck to the org chart, eventually it’ll be the customer who suffers.