Content Strategy for the Web Professional

You’re a web professional: a designer, developer, information architect,
or strategist. Your team has the web design disciplines covered: research, strategy,
user experience design, standards-based development, and project management.
But something’s going wrong with your projects; the user experience just isn’t meeting
your expectations. You’re reasonably sure you know why: there’s a problem with the content.

You’ve tried all the obvious solutions: installing a powerful, easy-to-use content management system, or demanding that the client supply content upfront, or even writing all the copy yourself; but none of them seem to have much impact.

You realize that your team could use some help from the discipline of content strategy, but for whatever reason, hiring a dedicated content strategist isn’t a feasible option. So what can you do to add some content strategy to your projects?

The answer, as with so much in web design, is: Do It Yourself.

A Do It Yourself guide to content strategy

All web professionals can engage with content strategy, whether we’re content specialists or not.

It turns out that content strategy is a core discipline of user experience design. We’ve all practiced it to an extent, but most of us have neither been doing enough, nor getting the timing right. Stay with me and I’ll show you how using the approaches and techniques of content strategy, and advocating them among colleagues and stakeholders, can substantially improve the chances of meeting your projects’ goals, through an improved user experience.

Definitions

A couple of definitions. By “content”, I mean text, images, audio, video; anything we
publish online, and anything that our users expect to find on our website.
For the discipline itself, see Kristina Halvorson’s
“The Discipline of Content Strategy”:

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

The pain of a broken experience

Before we learn how to use content strategy, it’s helpful to establish
why we need it in the first place. So let’s talk about the problem:
the pain of a broken experience.

Despite all the work we put into user experience design, the final experience often doesn’t meet our expectations, because the content isn’t right. Call it content-delay syndrome,
a failure to design the words, or simply treating content as somebody else’s problem. So we try the obvious solutions.

Easy solutions that don’t work

How many of these easy solutions to the content problem have you seen?

  • Design the site with “lorem ipsum”, and hope the client comes up with the content later.
  • Demand that the client supplies all the content before you start work.
  • Install a content management system (CMS).
  • Hire a copywriter at the last minute.

Unfortunately, none of these “solutions” actually work.

“Lorem ipsum” produces a template, aesthetics-only design, which has no relationship with the actual purpose of the site. Demanding content from the client is better than nothing, but is unlikely to work unless your stakeholders have an exceptionally strong grasp of content strategy themselves. (It can work for launch day content, but the site soon goes stale.) Everyone loves a good CMS, but software isn’t magic pixie dust: a CMS
without a content strategy leads to shovelware or worse. And even the most talented copywriter won’t be able to rescue your content at the last minute: content strategy isn’t all copywritingand it needs to be practiced throughout the design process.

Wasting our time

No amount of research, information architecture, interaction design, or usability testing can create a great user experience if the content isn’t useful and usable—if it doesn’t help the user to get things done. (A possible exception is web apps, but even Gmail has a content strategy: brochure text, documentation, microcopy.) To an extent we’ve been wasting our time; trying our hardest to polish an experience, when the core of what we’re offering to the user hasn’t been properly thought through.

So we need content strategy.

The ideal: hire a specialist

How can we add some content strategy to our projects?

Ideally, we’d hire a content strategist: a specialist, who can lead a broad, upfront
study, before we even sketch the first wireframe; and take responsibility for content
throughout the project. She’d work alongside the information architect, designer, developer, copywriter; you name it. (Many copywriters would gladly take on the role of content strategist, if we’d only ask them.)

If you can do this, congratulations; you’re on the road to success.

The reality: you can’t

In practice, we’re often unable to hire a dedicated content strategist, for various reasons:

  • We don’t have the money.
  • We don’t have the time.
  • We don’t know any content strategists.
  • It’s a miracle the stakeholders tolerated a planning stage at all. Asking for yet another expert on board is too radical, at least for now.

But don’t despair. The internet publishing revolution is part of the “mass amateurization of efforts previously reserved for media professionals,” in the words of Clay Shirky. [1] Web professionals operate at the fast-moving threshold between amateur and professional: our
professional work enables anyone to exploit the power of the web, without further help. (For example, consider blogging tools: created by experts, they empower non-experts to publish.)

So, those of us who aren’t content experts, let’s embrace that spirit, and practice content strategy for ourselves.

A core discipline of user experience design

How does “doing it for ourselves” fit into our existing practice as people who make websites? Well, I said earlier that content strategy is a core discipline of user experience design, and that you’re probably already doing some; let’s expand on that.

If you’re like me, you learned a great deal about web design from Jesse James Garrett’s famous diagram, “The Elements of User Experience” (PDF link), published in 2000. It still describes the field remarkably well, nine years on. But as Kristina Halvorson has pointed outthe diagram doesn’t treat content strategically: it’s treated like a feature, with nobody
taking ownership until the last minute.

Things change. It turns out that the bridge between site objectives and user needs—the strategy itself—is content. To say it another way, people come to your site because they want content; you meet user needs by planning, creating, delivering, and governing content, and you meet site objectives in the same way. Often, the content strategy is the web strategy.

This has been obvious to some practitioners for years, many of whom have called themselves “content strategists” all along. For the rest of us, it’s a bit of a shock. What, we can’t just throw some copy in on launch day?

The good news: you’re already doing some

But since it’s fundamental, anyone who’s tried to bring order, planning, and purpose to a web design project—like you, dear reader—is already practicing a little content strategy. Maybe you’ve:

  • Asked the question, “who cares?”
  • Compiled a content inventory.
  • Used real content in a wireframe.
  • Written a style guide.
  • Planned an editorial workflow.

You might have called it web strategy, information architecture, usability; it doesn’t matter.

How to practice content strategy

So we’re already practicing some content strategy. But how can we do more, more effectively? Here are some suggestions.

Make it part of your web strategy campaign

Use the principles of content strategy as part of your campaign for a grown-up web strategy.

As enlightened web professionals, one of our constant struggles is adding some strategic planning to our clients’ projects. Lisa Welchman defines two key elements of web strategy:

  1. Establishing a set of guiding principles.
  2. Formalizing authority for the web in the organization.

Content strategy applies directly to both points, asking:

  1. What content are we creating, and why?, and
  2. Who is responsible for planning, creating, and maintaining it?

Practically, this often means allocating a large portion of the project schedule to upfront planning: research, web strategy, content strategy. Anything that allows you to design from the content out, by delaying the design phase until the content actually exists, will help.

Advocate it among stakeholders

Advocate content strategy when talking to stakeholders about their web projects.

Although clients often don’t realize it, commissioning a website is a big deal; for the client as much as for the design team. Talking about content strategy is a great way to communicate to your stakeholders just how much work they need to do. (See:
Understanding web design.) The aim is to get your stakeholders to think like a publisher; and ideally to either narrow the scope, or increase the budget.

In my experience, clients appreciate the value of content strategy surprisingly quickly. I’ve had more success explaining its importance than with similar efforts for user-centered design or information architecture, for example.

Apply it to your design process

Apply the approaches and techniques of content strategy to your existing design process. Here are some starting points:

  • Ask questions about content, right from the start.
  • Utilize user research or personas to decide what content is needed: answer
    the question, “who cares?”
  • Establish key themes and messages.
  • Carry out a content audit, and a gap analysis.
  • Write a plan for creating and commissioning content.
  • Insist that the client plans for content production over time (an editorial calendar).
  • Annotate wireframes and sitemaps, to explain how both interaction and content will work.
  • Write comprehensive copy decks, based on
    common templates.
  • Write a style guide for tone of voice, SEO, linking policy, and community policy.
  • Specify CMS features like content models, metadata, and workflow based on the content strategy.

This only scratches the surface. For more on how to start practicing content strategy within a web design team, check out these presentations: “Explaining Content Strategy” by Jeffrey MacIntyre, and “Content is King” by Karen McGrane.

Engage with the community

Finally, engage with the community.

Some people have been practicing content strategy for years; they know what they’re talking about. It’s scary dealing with content experts—they eat grammar for breakfast—but imagine how they must feel about the CSS box model. They don’t seem to bite.

There’s a lively and growing community around content strategy. A few starting points are the Google groupthe “knol”and the twitter hashtag.

The benefits: look more accomplished

So why should you care about all this? You’re not even a content specialist.

Considering how well you managed to polish that user experience before, imagine what you’ll be able to accomplish when the site has a real content strategy. You’ll see a substantially improved user experience, increasing the chances of meeting the project’s goals; with the side effect of making your design seem more accomplished. Honestly: design an experience over a solid content strategy, and people will think you’re a genius. (Well, more of a genius than they thought you were already.)

The commercial aspect: this is going to be huge

Finally, a commercial- or career-oriented reason to get involved in content strategy.

Listen for a second. That crashing sound you hear is what we used to call the media industry, collapsing around us. All that destruction leaves a lot of space for web content. Web content strategy will be in demand for years to come.

So get out there, and Do It Yourself.

References


[1] “Here Comes Everybody”. Clay Shirky, Penguin. 2008. Page 55. (UK edition)

17 thoughts on “Content Strategy for the Web Professional

  1. That was a really great article, Jonathan. I appreciated the inclusion of so many links to resources to backup the information you provided; Setting the tone of voice and community policies are things I hadn’t heard of before but sound like they would be especially important when defining content strategy. I was wondering if you had any kind of good links on what writing a “style guide” entails and the proper way to do it?

  2. Jonathan, You’ve hit the nail on the head. This is a growing discipline and will become ever-more important to Web communication. I’ll be happy to see wider appreciation of content strategy and wider practice of content strategy across the Web. I do think that there are places where it can be handled by an educated Web professional in a different vein; indeed, Jeffrey MacIntyre wrote of the IA/copywriter, the content analyst and the editorial specialist as content strategsist in http://www.alistapart.com/articles/contenttiousstrategy/. And it seems you’re preaching the good word to an audience that includes even UX and design people. But I do think other projects–larger in scope perhaps–most absolutely will require dedicated content strategy professionals to succeed.

    David, your questions sparked me to blog a response about style guides: http://julieespinosa.wordpress.com/2009/09/09/all-about-web-style-guides/

  3. @David:

    Thanks, I’m glad you liked the piece. It looks like Julie has answered your style guide question much better than I could!

    @Julie:

    I agree!

  4. Well done Jonathan! I make this argument all the time. You don’t have to have a dedicated content strategist to have a solid content strategy for a project. Discussing content issues earlier in a project always makes everyone on the project look better in the end when things go well. Ignoring content issues until it impacts the schedule gives everyone a black eye.

  5. Jonathan — this is a thoughtful, breakthrough piece, and very much appreciated.

    At the very end of the article you mention “the commercial aspect: this is going to be huge.” I couldn’t agree with you more, although most of the content strategy stuff out there doesn’t mention the huge upside commercial opportunity. I’m glad you see it this way, too — I was beginning to think I was alone on this one.

  6. This is a great overview of DIY Content Strategy and is a valuable resource for any web professional out there looking to increase their understanding of how content plays into the big picture.

    A great content strategy unifies a companies narrative, improves user experience, makes the content more shareable and strengthens identity. All great things which have a huge commercial payoff (as you mention).

Comments are closed.