Strategic Content Management

I’ve written an article for A List Apart magazine called “Strategic Content Management”:

Any web project more complex than a blog requires custom CMS design work. It’s tempting to use familiar tools and try to shoehorn content in—but we can’t select the appropriate tool until we’ve figured out the project’s specific needs. So what should a CMS give us, apart from a bunch of features? How can we choose and customize a CMS to fit a project’s needs? How can content strategy help us understand what those needs really are? And what happens a day, a week, or a year after we’ve installed and customized the CMS?

Talking shop in Minnesota

In June I attended Web Content Chicago (videos now online). I had a blast: fantastic conference, friendly crowd, and an awful lot of cheese.

At the conference the Brain Traffic crew invited me to visit Minneapolis, an offer I couldn’t refuse. While I was there I recorded a podcast with the super-smart Meghan Casey, in which we talk about content strategy, design processes, and job titles—and I completely fail to speak Minnesotan. Check out the podcast.

I also visited a flour mill museum and managed to answer two bar trivia questions correctly (a personal best.) Thanks to all at Brain Traffic for being such welcoming hosts! Y’all are welcome in London anytime.

Wireframes are Works of Fantasy (Pecha Kucha talk)

Last week I presented at UK UPA‘s Pecha Kucha Night (20 slides x 20 seconds):

Most wireframes are works of fantasy: more aspiration than design solution. Fantasy wireframes lead to broken experiences, unmet goals, and angry stakeholders. But content strategy can help. Learn how UX professionals can use content strategy to design user experiences that work in real life, not just in a pretty wireframe.

Embrace content strategy: throw out your design process

The way most web teams are structured makes it impossible to practice content strategy. Agency or in-house, big or small, it doesn’t matter. If your lack of content strategy is hurting the user experience, it’s time to throw out your design process and start over. You have nothing to lose but your bureaucracy.

The web isn’t print, advertising, or software.

You got the memo years ago: the web isn’t print, advertising, or software. So why are so many web teams set up like it’s 1999? Here are three workflows that are alive and well (in London, at least).

First, the print design model, based on annual reports and brochures. Someone designs something, someone writes something, there are a few rounds of feedback and corrections. The client “signs off”, it goes to print, and it’s done. This process works for an annual report which nobody’s ever going to read (it’s about the shiny paper, right?) but only a mad person would use it for web design. You’d think.

Then there’s the advertising model. A man whose initials are on the front door comes up with a catchy strapline that would make a great 30 second TV commercial. Then it’s, “let’s make this a website!”, as they fly in a project manager
to draw a linear Gantt chart with “copy” slotted in at the end. It’s entirely campaign focused. Nobody expects people to visit this “website” after launch day.

Third, the software “waterfall” method. The platonic form of the website’s features is passed down on stone tablets by monks who just know what’s best. (Agile won’t solve your content strategy problems, of course, but the waterfall has to go.)

These models are completely inappropriate for web or user experience design. It’s impossible to practice content strategy in this context.

Start with publishing.

Throw these processes out. Start with publishing, and then add what you need to make the project work. Research, user-centered design, agile: whatever it takes.

Tiffani Jones wrote about this topic in “Toward a Content-Driven Design Process”:

One of the biggest and best side effects of content strategy’s activism is that it’s encouraging agencies to reorder their design process. It’s no longer: discovery, information architecture, design, templates and development.

Instead, we’re doing: content strategy, information architecture, web writing, content production, design, templates and development—or some version of this.

The important thing is, we’re starting to think about content, early on.

It’s worth celebrating the early signs of content strategy taking root within web design teams. But a common question from web people learning about content strategy is, “how can I make clients pay for this?” The honest answer involves throwing out your design process, hiring more content people, repositioning your offering as strategic rather than tactical, rethinking your billing model, challenging your clients rather than offering them “solutions”, and generally ruffling a lot of feathers.

Embracing content strategy is about the web industry growing up. We’ve been happily distracting ourselves from the scary, messy reality of web strategy, governance, and content by focusing on tactics, features, and techniques. If we want to fix the broken user experiences that result, we need to make some difficult changes. If you’re up for that, you’ll prosper. “She’ll be right,” as they say in Oz. Throwing out your design process is just the first step.

Content Strategy Forum 2010: the wrap-up

I thought the Content Strategy Forum would be good. It completely blew me away. I’m only just recovering now.

I think we might be onto something with this content strategy thing, people.
And that isn’t the French wine speaking.

Bloody good wine, though. And two-hour, sit-down lunches with wait-staff who put
us to shame with their elegance. Wow. Need to go to more conferences in France.

Here’s a wrap-up of the presentations I attended:

  • The masterfully-chosen exercises in Karen McGrane and Rachel Lovinger’s “Content Analysis” workshop required us to analyze content on a real website using apparently straightforward criteria. It wasn’t until we actually started that I realized that analysis is impossible without an understanding of business goals. We couldn’t produce anything meaningful without backing up into strategy. Genius. (Extra points for picking on my favorite website to hate:
  • Rahel Bailie’s keynote described a repeatable system for managing content’s entire lifecycle. Bailie sees content strategy as a key element of user experience, noting that a broken experience is the fastest way to deter confidence.
  • Sylvie Daumal offered insight into pan-European web projects run like global advertising campaigns, often in direct competition with local teams working for the same organization. According to Daumal, user-centered design techniques haven’t had much impact in Europe. I wonder whether that might change soon.
  • In her keynote, Kristina Halvorson shared her story of transformation from web writer to content strategy advocate. She urged everyone in the room to bravely face
    the conflict that’s bound to arise when we advocate organizational change.
    Halvorson is onto something. The time’s right for some serious change-making. Let’s make it a content strategy party.
  • Colleen Jones presented a thorough, rational approach to content analysis, backed by solid business strategy. I aspire to one day have Jones’ calm, authoritative demeanor when dealing with such a thorny issue.
  • Sarah Cancilla shared her experiences working on content strategy for Facebook’s 5 billion pieces of content per week. (Read that again.) Cancilla outlined a strategy for selling content strategy to an engineering- and design-focused organization in which everyone already has a stake in content. Favorite quote: “apply content strategy to your content strategy”. Inspirational.

A massive “merci” to Destry Wion and STC France for organizing this breakthrough event.

Stop Killing Your Best Work: my Ignite London talk

A couple of weeks ago I spoke at Ignite London 2, a community event where 18 people speak for exactly 5 minutes, with auto-advancing slides. It was part of Global Ignite Week, made up of 65 similar events in cities around the world. I had a blast: great crowd, excellent talks.

My talk was called “Stop Killing Your Best Work”, inspired by the work of Seth Godin (specifically his masterpiece Linchpin), David Allen, and Merlin Mann. Here’s the video:

Stop Killing Your Best Work by Jonathan Kahn from hurryonhome on Vimeo.

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.


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.


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

Subject to Change, by Adaptive Path (book review)

Book cover

“Subject to Change: creating great products and services for an uncertain world” is
Adaptive Path’s new book, written by Peter Merholz, Todd Wilkens, Brandon Schauer, and David Verba.
It’s an excellent book, clearly written and easy to follow, and it provides a combination
of historical perspective, an analysis of the present, an explanation of what design
actually is, and methods and tips on actually practising design in real life.

I don’t know exactly what I expected from this book—something aimed at a
design audience perhaps—but in fact the book reads more like a manifesto
for the discipline of experience design—and especially for its use in
corporations. At times the book is surprisingly radical, quoting non-mainstream
sources like the Cluetrain Manifesto and the
Agile Manifesto, taking aim at business school
thinking and its obsession with efficiency and benchmarking, and
scathing about advertisers’ and marketers’ view of customers as mere consumers,
or sheep. They even attack the “Homo Economicus” view of people
as rational utility maximisers, the part of Economics that’s always annoyed me the most.

The book’s key audience might be somebody working in a corporation
who wants to improve some aspect of their users’ experience—the usability
of a website or product, say. The authors’ message is that although
there may be lots of improvements you can make on that little
product, unless the organisation takes a holistic view of
the experience—an experience strategy, incorporating design as an
organisational competency—sooner or later
you’re going to hit a brick wall from the point of view of
the user experience.

They cite the example
of being asked to work on the user experience of a banking website,
when the key frustrations of the bank’s customers concerned
their interactions with branches, paper statements and
telephone banking—parts of the organisation that were
out of bounds for the website team.

This isn’t just a moan about how clients and organisations make designers’
jobs impossible. The authors’ argument isn’t that organisations need to
change in order to make design easier, but that if they don’t make design a
central part of what they do, they’re going to have a very rough time
trying to establish a competitive advantage.

From the first chapter:

> The key to succeeding in the contemporary marketplace
is to fundamentally change your relationship with customers.
Once you stop thinking of your customers as consumers
and begin approaching them as people, you’ll find a whole
new world of of opportunities to meet their needs and desires.

A thought-provoking, considered book—highly recommended.

“Subject to Change: creating great products and services for an uncertain world”
by Peter Merholz, Todd Wilkens, Brandon Schauer, and David Verba.
Published by O’Reilly, April 2008.
ISBN 10: 0-596-51683-5. ISBN 13: 9780596516833.

Microformats and OpenID will kill Facebook's business model

Right now everybody’s talking about Facebook, “the social utility that connects you with the people around you”. Thousands of people register on the site every day, and the mainstream press drones endlessly about whether it’ll get bigger than MySpace, and then presumably take over the world. And even though I haven’t signed up yet, I know from looking over people’s shoulders that an incredible number of my friends and acquaintances are active Facebook users. Perhaps I should just give in, and sign up.

But is Facebook really the ultimate social networking site, the last one you’ll ever need to add all your friends to? Of course not: in a year’s time, some other site will be the trendy hangout that you can’t afford to miss out on. But the good news is that this constant migration from network to network isn’t going to carry on for ever — because we now have interoperable, open standards that will make the idea that all your friends need to be on the same social network seem quaint. The combination of microformats and OpenID will allow open websites to compete with the key selling points of walled gardens like Facebook — privacy and network effects — and as a result, kill their business model.

Walled gardens

As Jason Kottke says, Facebook is the new AOL — a walled garden, which you can’t access from the open internet unless you’re a signed-up, logged-in Facebook user. Signing up to yet another website, and then approving all your friends for the 14th time is clearly a pain, so why do so many people do it? Because walled gardens offer two key features that open websites don’t: privacy and network effects.

Privacy: only my friends can see it

When you add content to your Facebook profile, you can make sure that only your friends can see it. So the fact that you’re feeling grumpy today isn’t broadcast to the whole world, just to your network — and the photos from the party last night can only be seen by people you trust. This kind of privacy feature isn’t unique to Facebook, of course: you can achieve the same effect using Flickr or Twitter, for example — sites which aren’t usually thought of as walled gardens. But I argue that whenever privacy features are used on these sites, they behave like walled gardens — because in order to restrict access to a network of friends, all of your friends need a profile on that site. You effectively lock out any of your real-life friends that haven’t signed up for that website: a walled garden approach.

Network effects: all my friends are already here

The success of social networks like Facebook is clearly helped by network effects — the fact that if lots of your friends are already active users, joining looks much more attractive than if you’re the first to join. This applies equally to adding comments to other people’s photos on Flickr and writing on a friend’s “wall” on Facebook.

The business model

The business model of these walled gardens goes something like this:

  1. Offer our users privacy (and other services).
  2. Exploit network effects to get as many of our users’ friends as possible to join.
  3. Sell advertising to our massive captive audience.

At the moment, this model works — just look at Facebook and MySpace. But notice that during the second step, the site isn’t getting users to sign up primarily because they like the service, but because their friends are already on the network. Walled gardens exploit their users’ personal relationships to grow their proprietary systems — and on the internet, that’s never sustainable.

An open alternative

So what’s the open alternative to this walled garden approach? Microformats for relationships and OpenID for identity.


Microformats are “a set of simple, open data formats built upon existing and widely adopted standards” — often referred to as the lowercase semantic web. Jeremy Keith outlines how the existing hCard and XFN microformats could be used to create portable social networks, so that each new website you join could automatically fetch a list of friends from a URL you provide. This wouldn’t have to be hosted on a blog or personal site — a profile page on a site like Flickr could automatically provide this information, just by using microformats in the markup. But what about privacy?


OpenID is an open, decentralised identity system. The central idea is that if a person can prove that they own a URL, that’s enough to identify them. Simon Willison describes how OpenId could be used to create decentralised social networks, “with profiles tied together across multiple sites and relationships easily portable between services” — that is, you can restrict access to your group of friends even if they’re not members of your social networking website of choice.

If a social networking site combined these approaches, you could instruct it to restrict access to a group of friends that:

  1. Is defined elsewhere, without having to be manually entered, and
  2. Doesn’t require your friends to be members of the site to access your content.

This is the killer combination for Facebook’s business model.

Goodbye, exponential growth

Why am I so sure this will happen? Well, it might not work exactly the way I’ve outlined, but some kind of interoperable, open standard will eventually replace proprietary, closed social networks, because open systems always beat closed ones on the internet. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the sites I’m calling walled gardens are doomed though — they just need to open up, and rethink their business model.

Once you remove the exploitation of personal relationships I’ve described above, exponential growth of users is much more difficult to achieve. Now, new users won’t sign up just because their friends’ content is in your system — because they can access it anyway using an open identity system. To get them to sign up, you’ll have to convince them that your service is better than all the others — which means you have to offer the best user experience, not the largest network.

Selling advertising to a captive audience also becomes more difficult, because your audience isn’t really captive any more. If your users’ friends use RSS to access content, for example, they won’t see your site at all — and anyway your users are free to migrate to another site whenever they want to, because they now own their data in an open format. Perhaps this will result in more targeted, niche advertising — or even a service charge (gasp!), paid in return for a well designed, pleasurable experience. Either way, the Facebook model will fail — which means that sometime soon, we won’t have to join a new social network every six months. I’m looking forward to it.

My adventures learning how to support groups to make decisions that everyone buys into. A blog by Jonathan Kahn.