The Increasing Momentum of Content Strategy

Content strategy is a topic more and more technical communicators are talking about. It’s one of the dominant conversations in the field right now. David Farbey recently presented on Content Strategy for Everyone at Tech Comm UK. Rahel Bailie talked about Creating a Content Strategy at the Lavacon conference. Scott Abel continually talks about content strategy — see this video series on content strategy he did with MindTouch.

When I was in Atlanta a while ago, Rachel Peters and Will Sansbury were raving about content strategy. They even talked about a new content strategy meetup they started attending in Atlanta. Unlike previous Summits, the last STC Summit had a handful of sessions on content strategy:

There’s a Content Strategy SIG. MindTouch recently announced a list of the top 25 content strategists. And now Kristina Halverson, author of Content Strategy for the Web, has announced an upcoming conference on content strategy.

Content strategy is clearly gaining momentum as a discipline alongside other disciplines related to tech comm, such as content management, information architecture, usability, and information design. And yet, many people feel that content strategy is vague, unclear, and frustrating in scope. In Contente, Nicol Jones writes,

One of my dearest friends (Katrina Dickson) e-mailed me at 2:38 a.m. on Thursday about content strategy.

Although she reads my posts and other content-related blogs, we haven’t discussed this before, other than talking about my role change when I left Apple in May. We usually just talk about food, cocktails, boys, San Francisco, et cetera.

Her questions were specific, her opinions were strong, and reading her note while waking up made my day.

To summarize her comments, she said she finds a lot of the posts about content strategy to be “frustratingly vague” and often repetitious. Definitions are unclear or incomplete. There’s too much junk on the pile. Kat’s most astute comment was:

If we thought of content strategy as a brand, it would be in some dire need of content strategizing. (A Brief Prolegomenon)

In other words, content strategy is hard to understand and implement; it’s too massive in scope to be clear. Ironically, it seems to lack content appeal itself.

The Classic Scenario

Exactly what is content strategy? Let’s look at what happens when there’s no content strategy. Here’s a classic scenario that you’re probably familiar with. You’re working on a new company website. Your interaction designer creates fancy prototypes filled with Latin text that look like this:

Designers prototypes usually lack real content

Designers prototypes usually lack real content, substituting instead Latin text.

The prototypes lack real content. The designer just inserts filler text in places where he or she thinks content will later appear. In this particular prototype, the designer accommodates a few sentences of text and relies on a large image as the central focal point.

When it’s time to add the real content, you submit a lengthy block of text with no images at all, like this:

Mismatch of prototypes with content

Mismatch of prototypes with content. The actual content doesn’t have a large, central image, and you have ten times the amount of text.

Consequently, you have a mismatch between the prototypes and content. It’s as if the designer has created packaging that doesn’t fit the product, and now you have the issue of figuring out how to send it.

Has this ever happened to you? If so, content strategy is probably relevant to you. Content strategy attempts to re-prioritize content so that it’s the focus of the project from day one, so that the designers create prototypes based on the content, not the other way around.

More Formal Definitions

The preceding example underscores the priority that content should have in a project. But we need a more formal definition of content stratgy. Kristina Halverson says “content strategy plans for the creation, publication, and governance of useful, usable content” (The Discipline of Content Strategy).

Rahel Bailie describes content strategy as a “repeatable system that governs the management of content throughout the lifecycle” (Content Strategy Presentation at Lavacon).

Scott Abel says content strategy is a “systematic approach involving automation, standardization, and productivity” (Why Content Strategy Matters).

These definitions capture the scope of the content strategist’s purpose. Ultimately the content strategist’s central question is this: what strategies can I implement to improve the content? Everything else in the preceding definitions — the creation, publication, governance, usefulness, standardization, automation, and management of content — are all just strategies aimed at improving the content.

Halverson notes that many people postpone discussions of content because content is messy and complicated. In fact, when we look at content from all the angles that need to be discussed and planned, we have to answer many of the questions in the following graphic:

Content strategy questions

The scope of content strategy is immense, but the central question that content strategists ask is what strategies will help improve the content. I pulled many of these questions from reading Kristina Halverson’s book, Content Strategy for the Web.

The central purpose of each strategy should be geared toward content improvement, toward eradicating content that fails for users.  (By content, we mean text, video, audio, and graphics.)

Although the ultimate goal is to improve the content, the focus of the content strategist is more on implementing strategies and processes than creating content itself (although a content strategist may play both roles). Overall, the content strategist tries to fix the processes that led to poor content.

Good Resources on Content Strategy

For a good primer on content strategy, see these four resources (almost all from Kristina Halverson):

Discussions About Content Strategy Need Better Content

Ironically, discussions about content strategy seem a bit dry, as Nicol Jones’ friend pointed out. I think Kristina Halverson’s book, Content Strategy for the Web, is a seminal book for the emerging discipline of content strategy. She lays out the core principles of content strategy in a clear, easy-to-follow way. She made me see all the dimensions of content that I hadn’t considered before. It’s a quick read with an engaging, witty voice.

But it lacks stories of real-world situations that were transformed through content strategy. Without the substance of story, without anecdotes and case studies and examples to illustrate the concepts and principles of content strategy, the content fails to make more meaningful connections with readers.

Most discussions of content strategy I’ve encountered follow the same style: a lot of abstract principles and concepts, with few concrete examples and stories. Kristina even says near the end of the book,

At the time of this writing, I’m not aware of a single case study available to the public that documents a content strategy success story. This, of course, is a problem. If there were a Forrester report that provided charts and data and Venn diagrams about how content strategy has demonstrated measurable ROI (return on investment) in dozens of organizations, we’d all have a much easier time selling content strategy into our companies. But there’s not. (Content Strategy for the Web, p.171)

Without the substance of real-world examples and concrete illustrations of content strategy, how can the discipline of content strategy ever move away from being vague and feeling incomplete?

A Story for Content Strategy

One of the problems with telling stories or providing examples is exposure of client details. This is problematic with blogging in general. But the blogger/writer must tactfully walk the line between appropriate and inappropriate exposure of details in any stories he or she tells.

With that said, I have a good story that illustrates the need for content strategy. I’m a technical writer for a large organization, the LDS Church. We have millions of users/members worldwide, and thousands of employees, with dozens of departments. We recently began a redesign of the existing lds.org into a new, more contemporary looking site. You can view the beta at new.lds.org.

Interaction designers worked hard to come up with comps and prototypes for the new site. We probably have half a dozen or more interaction designers working on the site. On the floor where the interaction designers are grouped, they pin up prototypes of the new site all along the walls. It’s almost like touring a gallery or museum. You can stop and look at one printout, and then move to the next, doing so for much of the afternoon. Their work is visually stunning.

The target launch, I believe, was sometime around October. I’m not totally sure, because I’m not very involved with the redesign. But a few months ago, as they had settled on a design, our team (User Education) was approached about possibly writing content for the new site. Although they didn’t have exact design prototypes for our content, I’m pretty sure the prototypes would have looked just like the other prototypes they created.

Our focus was to create information about each of the various organizations within the Church, such as Sunday School, Young Mens, Relief Society, Primary, and so on. The old site had much of this content, but it needed updating, possibly an overhaul of voice and tone, and other fixes before we migrated it to the new site.

Apparently the bulk of the site redesign focused on the design, not the content. Granted, Audiovisual did create a lot of new multimedia content, and there were other aspects of the new site that were freshly written. But overall it seemed like content took a backseat to design. I believe product managers focused more on the shade of blue, whether the new site would have a slide gallery or not, whether it would use flash, how we would hook into the new content management system, how we would integrate single sign on, what icons and size of the thumbnails we would use, the fonts, the heading sizes, the search, the visibility on the iPad, the sidebar gradients, the share-this-content features, and the various site tools rather than the actual content (at least the text content).

For months teams met and deliberated over designs for the new site. It went through several iterations. But no one seemed to be focusing on the content itself (other than the videos audiovisual contributed). In fact, many of the pages in the existing lds.org site (the old site) just link to pages in the previous redesign (an even older site), because no one bothered to update the content from the previous redesign.

With each new redesign, we just keep lugging the previous content into the new model, kind of like moving clothes from one dresser to the next. The clothes may have a new dresser, but the clothes themselves are worn and ragged, out of style, and in need of repair.

Although our team was asked to do some last minute content development for the new site, two weeks into it, someone mysteriously asked us to pause our work (and never resumed it). I can only guess that whoever made the call to pause us realized the scope of the content. There are a lot of different departments involved, with senior leaders over each department. You can’t just copywrite your way out of it one night. You have to meet with a lot of different groups, find out what content they need/want, and then write it — all with the same voice and style and branding. Then you need to get it approved and published — and hope that it will fit into the prototypes! Kind of an impossible task.

The site is nearly complete, and yet it still lacks content. Here’s that section we were going to write.

Content coming soon

Content coming soon. The fact that the site launches before the content is finished reveals the priorities people think about with the website. Is the site about the design or about the content?

I wish I could say that I stepped in and performed the content strategist’s role, but actually I don’t even know who pushed the pause button, or who is truly managing the project. More than 100 people are involved, and trying to find answers can be like playing pinball in the phone tree. You’re referred from one person to another, and when you do finally meet someone who seems like the leader, you find that his or her approval doesn’t carry weight because other people are moving in other directions, and you don’t have billing codes for anything.

In this situation, a content strategist should have been involved early on. The content strategist should have gathered the content before the interaction designers started designing containers for the content. The content strategist should have mapped out a plan for the creation, review, and approval of the content. The content strategist should have been working closely with information architects to define the site navigation and flow of information. Instead, we ended up with a lot of prototypes without any real content, and filler pages like the above (which are essentially Latin text translated into kind English).

Conclusion

With smaller projects or non-website projects, you can play the role of a content strategist while performing your usual role. But with larger projects, a dedicated content strategist role is critical, particularly when you have multiple departments involved and a lot of content.

The content strategist should ask all the questions I included in my earlier graphic. But to be an effective content strategist, you also need to have a tremendous political/persuasive power to interact among various departments and project owners, to discover content needs and extract information from subject matter experts. You have to distill large scale messaging and brand, and then bring this all together while working closely with information architects and interaction designers to align their creativity with the content.

In short, the content strategist’s role requires you not only to wrangle an immense amount of content into one unified whole, but also to wrangle and guide large groups of stakeholders and other decision leaders toward the same end.

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By Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer working for the 41st Parameter in San Jose, California. I'm primarily interested in topics related to technical writing, such as visual communication (video tutorials, illustrations), findability (organization, information architecture), API documentation (code examples, programming), and web publishing (web platforms, interactivity) -- pretty much everything related to technical writing. If you're trying to keep up to date about the field of technical communication, subscribe to my blog either by RSS, email, or another method. To learn more about me, see my About page. You can also contact me if you have questions.

23 thoughts on “The Increasing Momentum of Content Strategy

  1. Rahel Bailie

    Great post, Tom. I agree that there is a fair bit of vagueness out there, and probably by necessity. It’s a field as wide as “doctor”; we all know what doctors do, kind of, but there are 101 types of doctors, and their specialties range from psychiatry to podiatry, and everything in between. Same with content strategists. Specialize in marketing websites? What about taxonomies? Social media, maybe? How about technical content? Big differences in the deliverables and in the approach, though there are some core practices that carry throughout.

    Similar point regarding case studies, where companies with successful projects want to guard their strategy, and those with unsuccessful projects don’t want to be revealed. I’ve had only two (relatively small) clients agree to let me present their strategies at conferences, but not to publish that information anywhere. Even for the smaller orgs, it’s part of their competitive advantage, and they don’t want that being made public.

    I would love to see a public project – perhaps for something open source – that could be used as a showcase.

    1. Tom Johnson

      Thanks for your comment, Rahel. Can you point me to the two published content strategies that you mentioned? The way you phrased it, a company’s content strategy seems like a top secret document. I’m not really sure what such a document or strategy would be like that would make it so secret. I guess if the content strategy highlights the key brand and message as differentiated from competitors, that might be a for-company-eyes-only document. But if the strategy is successful, that content will be apparent in the execution of the strategy.

    2. Rahel Bailie

      As Richard (and my clients) say, the content strategy is their competitive advantage. One client said that I could present at a conference, but not to actually publish the slides. Why? They recognized that the work I did for them would make them more successful than their competitors. their fear was that publishing how they did it would give their competitors the same ideas, and then they would no longer have a competitive advantage.

      A friend worked on a large project that had lots of glitches and laughingly comical errors, had the company not been a giant of a multinational. They don’t want their CS discussed because it would reveal how disorganized they are behind the huge facade of their marketing machine.

      But stay tuned – all will be revealed in good time …

  2. Scott Abel

    The best content available on content strategy is still Ann Rockley et al in ‘Managing Enterprise Content: A Unified Content Strategy’ (New Riders). I am shocked at how many of our peers think these concepts (mentioned in Tom’s article) are new or somehow just now becoming known. It just goes to show how many of us did NOT read this book ten years ago. It is the foundation for all the work since then. Kristina H. calls Rockley the ‘mother of content strategy’ for a reason and bases many of her concepts on Rockley’s previous work. If you are a orfessional technical communicator and have not made time to read and master Rockley’s concepts as found in ‘Managing Enterprise Content’ you have done yourself a disservice.

    1. Tom Johnson

      Thanks for bringing up Enterprise Content Strategy. I should probably read the book again, since it has been years.

      I would love to see an approach with content strategy that gets much more specific with examples, case studies, illustrations, and other concrete details of actual cases. I believe that hasn’t been written yet — and that’s problematic.

    2. Eddie VanArsdall

      Rockley’s book is indeed the bible, and one of the first books to refer to the planning details as a content strategy. I didn’t mention it because I assumed that it would be on the reading list of everyone who follows this blog.

  3. Cassie

    Fantastic post Tom. I find this very insightful and useful in my work. It is also a little intimidating because I know how this goes. But what an exciting time to be involved in the industry!

  4. Eddie VanArsdall

    This post resonates with me. In the past two years, I’ve followed many blogs and online discussions that focus on content strategy. I agree that most of the discussions are vague and “fuzzy.” Participants pose a lot of the same questions, and most of the answers are long on theory and not very definitive on practice. As a profession, content strategy is obviously finding its way.

    Even so, my devotion to the topic paid off. Six months ago I received an unsolicited phone call about a position with a web consulting company, and I became their first content strategist. I knew that much of what I’ve practiced over the years has been content strategy on a smaller scale, and since the web is my first love, I jumped at the chance to take a full-scale CS journey.

    I was hired for a specific federal project, and right now I’m billing full-time to that project. I’m part of a User Experience team in an almost frantically busy Agile environment. I wear the titles of Managing Editor and Content Strategist, and although I have co-workers and SMEs who contribute content, I serve as principal writer and editor, too. I also work with a Content Manager who’s responsible for getting our content into the CMS.

    I’m fortunate to work with a talented, creative group in an ad agency type of setup. I don’t have to leave my seat to talk with two IAs, the Art Director, a Business Analyst, and a front-end developer. I’m invited to design meetings and can provide input at every stage. Yes, we have wireframes with some lorem ipsum filler, but our IAs are very conscientious about including real content where possible. I take what they draft and refine it to meet the requirements. I’m currently working with a colleague on a wizard design.

    I have a couple of comments about your post:

    (1) In a perfect world, content would drive site development, but clients don’t always make that easy. They often ask for features that we have to develop and deliver quickly. Plus, many of our site features are developed by outside partners, and we don’t have full control over what they produce. Where we’re responsible for features, my team gives me the opportunity to review early designs. I may sometimes drive only the labeling and messaging, but at other times, I develop content and we craft pages from it.

    (2) I believe that Christina Halvorson’s book is certainly the best book for the big-picture view on content strategy, but it doesn’t provide many details about the day-to-day practice. For that information, I often turn to Richard Sheffield book, “The Web Content Strategist’s Bible.” I reviewed and compared both books last year in this post:

    http://www.vanarsdall-infodesign.com/2009/09/27/the-sun-shines-on-content-strategy/

    1. Tom Johnson

      Hi Eddie. Thanks for the comment. I didn’t know that you’d moved into content strategy. I did see the post you wrote months ago, and I remember reading it and thinking wow, why is he reading books on content strategy. Now I see why.

      Interestingly, I ran across two posts today on content strategy that both called out content strategy as a fancy name for an old practice. Scott Abel linked to this incendiary post on the Brand Builder blog.

      The other post, which also tackled the nomenclature of the content strategy discipline, is a post by Mapped called Fear, Loathing, and Content Strategy.

      You’re one of the few people I know who actually does content strategy. Just curious, but what’s your take on this debate? Are you just planning and writing web content on an enterprise level, or are you doing a lot more (i.e., doing so much strategizing that you’re definitely into something unique)?

    2. Eddie VanArsdall

      Tom, thanks for asking these questions. I don’t dismiss the comments of naysayers, and I definitely see validity on both sides of the argument. I’m admittedly still finding my way with this work. It’s an experiment both for the project and for me.

      I wanted to move beyond tech writing and tool specialization and focus on more more strategic work. This project certainly fills that need. It’s very large-scale and highly secure, with a lot of partner contributors, so getting the lay of the land has taken some time.

      Besides the day-to-day site activities, I’m just starting to work on a large-scale integration with another site where we’ll consume content from their repository. I’m also getting involved in the taxonomic end of things and will be part of the team that helps our client select an Enterprise CMS. (We use a CMS, but the agency we support doesn’t really have one in place.)

      So as you can see, there’s a lot of variety there. I’ll start writing more about it when I’ve worked out more details.

  5. Richard Sheffield

    Well done Tom! I also have a background in technical communication and I know a lot of tech writers who have successfully made the leap to content strategy. I agree with Rahel in that it is very hard to get good case studies. No one wants to give up their secret sauce! I’ve not been able to get permissions needed to publish one either. But I know of many very successful projects that use content strategy as a major component. Global Web design agencies, such as Razorfish and Sapient, use content strategy as part of their standard development methodology and have been very successful in doing so. They must be doing something right!

    1. Tom Johnson

      Richard, thanks for leaving a comment on this post. I should read your book. You mentioned that “no one wants to give up their secret sauce.” This is where I get confused. If someone’s content strategy is a secret, how can it be successfully executed? Won’t the execution reveal the strategy? I mean, shouldn’t their strategy be apparent in the content they produce? Can you give me an example of what might be secret and protective about a content strategy?

    2. Eddie VanArsdall

      I can’t speak for Richard, but I believe he’s referring to the fact that there’s so much theoretical information and yet so little concrete practice information about content strategy.

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  7. Richard Rabil, Jr.

    Thanks for addressing this topic, Tom. Very good story and practical examples. I was recently assigned to a project where I’m updating help content for an existing web-based information system, and sadly, I’m finding that there was little to no collaboration between the writers and the developers on how to implement, review, and maintain content both in the interface itself and online the help system and reference guides over the long term. I hope to a propose a new content strategy for the next iteration, but like you suggested, a lot will depend on how well I can influence the project director and product managers, and of course on what funds are available for making extensive changes.

    I’m also glad Scott and Rahel weighed in. A while back I did some research on content management and single sourcing, and I was wondering how the content strategy trend related to the concepts already written about in depth by Rockley. I think JoAnn Hackos has also covered it in her book ‘Content Management for Dynamic Web Delivery.’

  8. David Farbey

    Hi Tom,

    I enjoyed reading your article. Thanks for contributing to what is fast becoming a very intense conversation about what “content strategy” is or is not.

    My intention in speaking on “content strategy” is to give people who produce content, and the people who employ them, a focal point for talking about the importance of content relative to all the other activities that go into any communication deliverable, be it online or on paper.

    I feel that the “information technology” industry has emphasised the “technology” to the detriment of the “information” for far too long. In many corporations the “Chief Information Officer” is in charge of technology and doesn’t care about information, while “Knowledge Management” is about systems and management, and not really about knowledge. As result content itself becomes devalued and is regarded as a commodity that should be acquired from the cheapest source. That can’t be right. I believe that talking about content as something strategic is a good way to start redressing the balance.

  9. Larry Kunz

    This is very thorough and well thought out, as usual, Tom. When Rahel wrote last week about content strategies and output channels, I began thinking in earnest about what the boundaries of content strategy are, and I wrote down some thoughts.

    I wrote that before reading your article here. This article, and Rahel’s comment (It’s a field as wide as “doctor”) have gotten me thinking even more in earnest. Thanks for enriching the discussion.

  10. Rahel Bailie

    Oh, how embarrassing. Larry caught an editorial error that *completely* changed the meaning of my entire post on the topic of “The Web is Just an Output Channel.” The contentious sentence should have read: You can’t really talk about being a *web* content strategist, unless that means you handle only web content that is not also destined for [other output channels]. So while I’m glad this sparked some discussion, I have now corrected the post.

    Tom, thanks for a thoughtful and nuanced discussion of content strategy, particularly in the context of technical communication.

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